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Freedom may be coming to potentially scores of North Carolina inmates deemed "legally innocent" of gun charges that they should never have been convicted of in the first place.
Federal courts are ordering some inmates released after a USA Today investigation found they'd been convicted of unlawfully possessing guns as felons -- but none of them were actual felons.
The confusion lies in how federal law defines "felons," and how North Carolina sentences its criminals, according to USA Today.
Under federal law, convicted felons are prohibited from possessing firearms. Violating the law is itself a felony, and can result in a lengthy prison sentence.
Because of how the law is worded, it also includes anyone convicted of a crime that could be punished by at least a year in prison.
The problem: In North Carolina, sentences are determined in part by a defendant's criminal history. Those with prior convictions can face more than a year in prison, even for minor felonies and misdemeanors.
As North Carolina's federal courts interpreted the law, that meant a wide range of crimes -- including misdemeanors -- also triggered the gun-possession prohibition, even for first-time offenders. As a result, tens of thousands of people in North Carolina were deemed to be prohibited from owning firearms, USA Today reports.
That is, until a federal appeals court realized nearly everyone in North Carolina had been incorrectly interpreting the law.
Since that realization in the Fourth Circuit's U.S. v. Simmons decision last fall, the appeals court has reversed more than 40 federal gun-possession convictions, according to USA Today. Some wrongly convicted inmates are being set free.
It's not clear how many more "legally innocent" gun-charge convictions will be tossed or challenged; prosecutors and defense lawyers are trying to figure out how to deal with such cases, USA Today reports. Anyone who feels they've been wrongly charged or convicted should contact a local criminal defense attorney to determine their best legal strategy.