A Supreme Court ruling Thursday means that at least some federal prisoners who are innocent must serve out their entire sentence, with no meaningful way to challenge their unlawful conviction. A fundamental principle of criminal law is that no one may be convicted of a crime unless the legislature made their actions illegal. The Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision in Jones v. Hendrix, attacks this principle indirectly by prohibiting many prisoners from ever challenging their convictions in court, reports Vox. The case centers on Marcus DeAngelo Jones, who was convicted in 2000 of possessing a firearm after being convicted of a felony. Nineteen years later, in Rehaif v. United States (2019), the Supreme Court held that no one may be convicted under this felon-in-possession statute unless they knew they had a felony conviction at the time that they possessed the gun.
Jones says that he (incorrectly, but genuinely) believed that his previous felony conviction had been expunged when he purchased a gun, and thus his conviction was invalid. In essence, he claims that no federal law criminalized his possession of a firearm, because he did not know he had a felony conviction. Thanks to Justice Clarence Thomas’s opinion in Jones, we will never know if Jones is innocent of the crime that caused him to spend nearly a quarter-century in prison because the court held that Jones may not challenge his conviction at all. The reason why is a federal law known as Section 2255 that ordinarily prevents federal prisoners from challenging their conviction or sentence more than once. After he was sentenced, but before Rehaif raised a cloud of doubt over whether Jones belonged in prison at all, Jones successfully petitioned a federal court to vacate part of his sentence. Thomas’s opinion holds that Jones’s pre-Rehaif challenge to his sentence blew his only chance to challenge his conviction, even though Jones couldn’t have known before Rehaif was decided that he had a potentially valid claim that he is innocent.