U.S. Supreme Court ruling on sentencing law could free hundreds in Ohio

Hozae Rodriguez Ward has been in federal prison since 2009.

By Earl Rinehart The Columbus Dispatch  •  Monday September 26, 2016 7:04 AM



Celia Ward has the menu planned for her son’s welcome-home dinner: fried chicken, cabbage, cornbread and mac and cheese.

It’s been a while since Hozae Rodriguez Ward, 39, sat down at his mother’s table.

From 1995 to 2007, he was in the county jail and state prison. Since 2009, he has been in federal prison. But according to the U.S. Supreme Court, he should have been home five years ago.

Ward is eligible for immediate release after the high court ruled on June 25, 2015, that the Armed Career Criminal Act, under which Ward was sentenced, was too vague.

The ruling probably affects many more than just Ward.

The federal public defender’s office in Cincinnati is conducting an “initial” review of 400 federal inmates sentenced under the act to see if they, too, have been in prison too long. The office covers only the Southern District of Ohio. The total number of inmates affected nationwide is unknown, but there are 89 district courts in the 50 states, including two in Ohio.

On Wednesday in Columbus, U.S. District Judge Michael H. Watson ordered Ward’s release, which should occur within 30 days. Watson sentenced Ward on June 30, 2009, to the minimum mandatory term of 15 years after he pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of ammunition.

“No one is terribly comfortable with that, given your previous record,” Watson said. “ Nonetheless, you’ve served more than twice the guideline range, as recalculated.”

The defense and prosecution agreed that, based on the high court’s ruling, Ward’s maximum sentence should have been 27 months.

The Armed Career Criminal Act imposed a mandatory minimum 15-year prison sentence on felons convicted of a firearm offense who had three previous convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses.

The act defined those violent felonies as burglary, arson, extortion and those involving the use of explosives.

The problem, the justices wrote in Johnson v. United States, is that the act continued to add a broad “residual clause” that included crimes that “otherwise involve conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”

The court ruled that the residual clause violated the Fifth Amendment’s due-process provision because it was too vague and “invites arbitrary enforcement” by judges.

Ward was 17 years old in 1994 when he was prosecuted as an adult on two aggravated robbery and two burglary charges.

“We’ve had numerous folks who have walked out the Bureau of Prison door,” said Kevin Schad, appellate director for the federal public defender’s office for the Southern District of Ohio.

In addition to his office’s 400 cases, others are being reviewed by attorneys appointed by the court to help, said Schad, who filed the motion in Ward’s sentencing.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Watson told Ward: “My hope is you are a changed man eight years down the road, that you have skills you can use to transfer back into society, that you have skills that you can transition.”

Celia Ward said several relatives who own businesses have offered to hire her son. “He’s tired of doing time, and he knows this is his opportunity to get it right,” she said.

Watson was concerned about the violent nature of Ward’s 1994 crimes, in which two people were shot and wounded. “It’s a very serious offense,” the judge said.

In the 2008 case, police went to North 4th Street and East 8th Avenue on a call about a man firing a gun at people. When they arrived, Ward ran to a porch at a house on Hamlet Street. When he pointed the gun at police, an officer returned fire. Ward was not hit, and he dropped the gun. No one was hurt.

Ward has been moved from the federal prison in Columbiana County to the state Correctional Reception Center at Orient in Pickaway County. He’s waiting to hear whether he’ll be released from state parole. He violated that parole from his 1994 convictions when he was caught with the gun in 2008.

“He definitely has a place to go if he wants,” Celia Ward said from her two-bedroom home in Olde Towne East.

Schad said the number of inmates affected by the ruling might grow. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear an outgrowth of Johnson v. United States. The petitioners in Beckles v. United States argue that a similarly vague clause exists in other enhanced-sentencing guidelines.

“That opened up a whole number of other cases,” Schad said.

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