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Waddell v. Department of Correction, No. 11-7234

Decided: May 25, 2012

Waddell was sentenced to life imprisonment, but sought habeas corpus relief in the Western District of North Carolina, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Waddell claimed that the North Carolina Department of Correction (“DOC”) improperly excluded “good time credits” when it calculated his release date, and, as such, his continued imprisonment violates his constitutional rights. The District Court found that Waddell’s petition for habeas corpus relief was time-barred, and in the alternative, it denied his petition on its merits. Waddell appealed, and the Appellate Court affirmed the judgment of the lower court.

A brief description of the relevant facts and procedural history are necessary to an understanding of the Appellate Court’s opinion. In 1974, North Carolina’s murder statute was revised, making the death penalty the mandatory sentence for first-degree murder. In 1975, Waddell was convicted of first-degree murder, and thus was given the death penalty. Subsequently, in 1976, the United States Supreme Court found the North Carolina murder statute unconstitutional, vacated Waddell’s death sentence, and remanded to the North Carolina courts where Waddell received a sentence of life imprisonment. This life sentence was imposed in 1976 under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-2 (1974), the so-called “eighty-year rule,” which provided that a life sentence would be considered imprisonment for a term of 80 years. This eighty-year rule was enacted in 1974, but repealed in 1977, leaving only a small group of North Carolina prisoners, including Waddell, who were sentenced to life in prison under the rule (“eighty-year prisoners”).

Also relevant to the case at hand is the DOC’s policy on “good time credits.” The DOC awards prisoners sentencing credits for good behavior and productivity, but, when applied to life sentence prisoners, such as Waddell, these credits have historically been applied to the calculation of parole eligibility and custody grade, but not as an adjustment to the release date. The release date of such prisoners was originally recorded as “LIFE” or some other term, rather than an actual date.

In 2005, one of the eighty-year prisoners filed a request for post-conviction relief, alleging that once his good time credits were applied to his release date he had served his eighty-year sentence. Ultimately, this led the Secretary of Correction to direct that prisoners sentenced to life under the eighty-year rule were deemed to have an unconditional release date eighty years from the date of conviction, with no good time credit adjustments. Under this formulation, Waddell received a release date of October 31, 2054. After the Secretary of Correction’s decision, several of the eighty-year prisoners filed for post-conviction relief alleging error in their good time credits not being applied to their release dates. The proceedings, handled in varying superior courts, resulted in conflicting rulings. Thus, in 2010 the Supreme Court of North Carolina reviewed these rulings in Jones v. Keller, and upheld the DOC’s decision to not apply good time credits to the sentences of the eighty-year prisoners. The court found that the rules and regulations regarding good time credits were administrative, not judicial, and, as such, it was appropriate to give deference to the DOC’s decision. The court, in Jones, also held that there was no equal protection violation as there was a rational basis for treating eighty-year prisoners differently than other prisoners – the fact that they were convicted of the more severe crime of first-degree murder. Finally, the Jones court rejected an ex post facto argument, which is based on the principle that a state cannot adopt a respective law that alters the punishment of a crime that was committed before the law was enacted. No legislation altered Jones’ award of good time credits, thus he had no suffered an ex post facto injury and the argument failed on the merits.

In the present case, the Appellate Court noted that since the North Carolina Supreme Court adjudicated the relevant habeas corpus claims on the merits in Jones, it could not grant relief to Waddell unless the Jones decision was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, established federal law, or was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts based on the evidence presented.

On appeal, Waddell’s specific claims are, first, that his 28 U.S.C. § 2554 petition is not time-barred, and, second, that contrary to the decision in Jones, the DOC erred in failing to apply his good time credit to his release date. In support of his second claim, Waddell contends that the Jones decision was contrary to, and involved an unreasonable application of, established federal law, thus allowing the Court of Appeals to grant him relief, for two reasons. First, Waddell alleges that theJones court disregarded applicable due process jurisprudence in its decision to give deference to the DOC’s decision regarding the application of good time credits to eighty-year prisoners. Secondly, Waddell contends that the Jones court erred in applying the ex post facto principles, and that the DOC’s decision retroactively deprived him of his right to use his good time credits in calculating his release date.

Addressing Waddell’s first claim – that his § 2554 petition was not time-barred – the Appellate Court noted that in 1996, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”) subjects § 2554 petitions of state prisoners to a one-year state of limitations, and Waddell’s petition, which was not filed within one year of either his conviction or the AEDPA’s enactment, was found to be time-barred by the District Court. The thrust of Waddell’s argument on appeal is that the factual predicate of his claims did not exist until the DOC failed to release him based on a sentence calculated with his good time credits applied. While Waddell’s argument contained a factual error, the Appellate Court noted that his argument could be construed in such a way as to present a possibly valid state of limitations argument. However, the Court declined to decide this issue stating that it would decide the case on the merits, thus rendering a decision as to whether Waddell’s claim are time-barred unnecessary.

The Appellate Court then turned to Waddell’s first challenge to the ruling of the Jones court. Specifically, Waddell contends that the DOC awarded him good time credits that reduced his sentence, and then deprived him of those credits without the minimum processes necessary to satisfy due process guarantees. The Court found this argument flawed. Since the DOC never used good time credits to reduce the sentence of eighty-year prisoners, Waddell’s never had a right to use his good time credits in such a manner, thus an argument that this right was abrogated fails.

The Appellate Court then addressed Waddell’s claim of an ex post facto violation. Mirroring the decision in Jones, the Court found that Waddell’s argument was meritless. Waddell’s sentence for his crime was life in prison, and his sentence remains life in prison. The DOC’s failure to apply his good time credits to his sentence was not the result of subsequent legislation, and thus does not support an argument of ex post facto injury. The Court reiterated that while North Carolina law provides for the award of good time credits, the DOC determines how those credits are applied.

In summary, the Appellate Court affirms the judgment of the District Court denying Waddell’s § 2554 petition on the merits.

Full Opinion

– Kassandra Moore