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Whoops. Missouri Supreme Court releases man convicted in 1993 without jurisdiction.


The Missouri Supreme Court today ordered the release of Dwight Laughlin, who was convicted in 1993 of burglary and property damage crimes at the post office in Neosho, Missouri in State ex rel Laughlin v. Bowersox. You can read the briefs here.

At Laughlin’s trial in 1993, his attorney failed to point out that the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over crimes on federal post office property under the U. S. Constitution and Missouri statutes.

After Laughlin filed an application for a writ of habeas corpus in 2009, the Missouri Supreme Court, perhaps noting that Laughlin might have a strong case,  appointed Ginger Gooch, a Springfield attorney, to represent him. She did so admirably.

The facts of this case remind me of several things:

  1. Our country is organized in a federal system, in which the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over some things and shares concurrent jurisdiction with the states over other matters. States have jurisdiction over many kinds of crimes, but there has been a “federalization” of crime in recent decades, as federal statutes have defined many crimes under the headings racketeering, drug trafficking, money laundering, etc.
  2. The Newton County prosecuting attorney should have referred the case to federal authorities in 1993, failing to understand the limits of his office. The judge went along with the improper prosecution.
  3. The defense attorney in 1993 may have reckoned that a state court conviction and sentence would have been better for Laughlin than a federal conviction and sentence. Or the defense attorney may have, like the prosecutor and judge, totally missed the issue.
  4. Lawyers and judges make serious mistakes with serious consequences. Maybe Laughlin would have spent 15 years in a federal prison as a consequence. But the lawyers and judges involved probably won’t suffer.
  5. The Missouri Supreme Court, when faced with Laughlin’s request for a writ of habeas corpus, was able to separate it from the thousands of such requests it receives each year and to give it a fair hearing.
  6. Ginger Gooch was willing to stand up for the prisoner.
  7. While I haven’t checked, I think it’s a safe bet that Laughlin waited until the statute of limitations had run on the federal offenses before filing his request for a writ of habeas corpus. Someone who knows criminal law may be able to offer an opinion on whether he could have been tried again for the same acts.
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About Harry Styron

I'm a lawyer who lives in Branson, Missouri, whose professional interests involve real estate, construction and local government.

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