Thomas Perrin — aka Wallace White — may not be a very sympathetic figure, but he's still right.
He has a long list of criminal charges filed against him in Baltimore courts going back a dozen years, and he has a handful of convictions — including two for drug distribution. He was most recently convicted in 2006 in federal court of being a felon in possession of a gun and ammunition.
But he was never found guilty of distributing drugs a third time in the year 2000 — despite that conviction's having been entered into a state judicial records database.
That simple clerical error took Perrin nearly four years to correct and almost cost him 14 years of freedom. And it's turned him into a cautionary tale within the federal court system, where a criminal history with three serious drug convictions can turn a six-year sentence into a 20-year term.
U.S. District Court Judge William D. Quarles resentenced Perrin on Friday to 77 months for his federal conviction, down from an original 235 months.
"First off, I apologized to him" for the rare blunder, Quarles said. He then congratulated Perrin for his persistence, which, he said, "pointed out that you cannot always accept the records at face value, and we need to be reminded of that sometimes."
The initial sentence was based on a mistaken belief that Perrin had the three convictions necessary to make him an "armed career criminal" eligible for a significant sentence enhancement.
"I guess the big takeaway is the necessity for a sort of enlightened skepticism" when it comes to records, Quarles said.
Attorneys, court personnel and judges are now rethinking their quick acceptance of certain electronic records, based on Perrin, who's been in and out of trouble for most of his life.
His mother died when he was 12, and his father was never around, according to C. Justin Brown, the defense attorney who represented Perrin during Friday's hearing. And by the time he was 25, Perrin had racked up dozens of charges in Baltimore city under the alias Wallace White, according to online records.
But most of those 30-plus adult cases — which included allegations of loitering, second-degree assault, drug possession, handgun violations and theft — were never prosecuted. And his convictions led to relatively short prison terms.
That changed in 2005, when he was arrested in Northeast Baltimore for illegally possessing a loaded handgun. During his trial, police testified that they saw Perrin, who's now 29, walking along Cliftview Avenue with something heavy in his waistband. The officers said they tried to stop him, but he ran, tossing a gun along the way.
A jury convicted him, and Quarles sentenced him to 191/2 years in prison, after being told by a federal probation officer that Perrin had three serious drug strikes against him.
Under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act, judges must impose a minimum 15-year sentence for felons convicted of gun possession if they are also guilty of three prior crimes involving violent felonies or serious drug offenses — like distribution.
The mandatory stiff sentence is the chief reason that prosecutors prefer to litigate gun crimes in federal court and defense attorneys don't.
"A relatively minor prior conviction can more than double a person's sentence" in some cases, said James Wyda, the federal public defender for Maryland.
It "completely changes the sentencing process so defense attorneys now must investigate their client's criminal past as thoroughly as they investigate the current charges," Wyda said.
Perrin said all along that he didn't have a qualifying third strike against him, even though computer records, entered by hand based on court documents, showed he did. It's a frequent refrain in federal court, and is usually untrue. But Perrin wouldn't let it drop.
He worked on his reading and writing skills, and then he filed an appeal that led to the case's being sent back to court for further inquiry, though the sentence was upheld. He filed another appeal, but the decision was again affirmed. He sent a petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take on the case, but it was denied. And then he filed a petition to correct his sentence.
While that was pending in early 2010, he did the one thing that mattered most: He got an actual copy of his earlier court disposition documents. They showed he was never found guilty of drug distribution a third time. He had been correct.
In March, Quarles ordered that an attorney be appointed to Perrin's case based on the new information, and a hearing was held Friday.
"No one ever went to the courthouse and got the original court file," Brown, Perrin's court-appointed lawyer, said in an interview. "It's almost a lesson to people who've been locked up, for them to stay involved in their case, and … if they're right about something to keep fighting."
After testimony from a federal probation officer and a Baltimore court clerk, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kwame Manley conceded "that there was a clerical error" in the system. "I think that's clear," Manley said during the hearing, as Perrin's children, extended family and fiancée looked on.
There have been errors before, but none of this magnitude, said those interviewed.
"This is the first federal case I am aware of in which the computerized state court record of a conviction was wrong," Rod Rosenstein, Maryland's U.S. attorney, said in an e-mail. "The good news is that the original documents were available in the state court clerk's warehouse for closed files."
Perrin, who's been imprisoned since July 2005, should be released on probation before the end of the year, Brown calculated. During Friday's hearing, the attorney asked how defense lawyers could "be sure" their clients' records were accurate.
The answer was to simply do as Perrin did: Get the actual files.
"It's a reminder that we have to pull those files, we have to double-check everything," Brown said. "Because when it's not done properly, the results can be disastrous."