Crime Scenes: Maryland man challenges denial of gun purchase

Daniel Hubert Ross is still paying for killing his wife four decades ago.

This is not a plea for sympathy. A jury found him guilty of first-degree murder and a judge sentenced him to spend the rest of his life behind bars in a North Carolina prison. There is no doubt that Ross shot his wife.

But Ross argued that he hadn't been allowed to adequately explain his claim of self-defense, and he appealed his 1969 conviction. The case bounced through state courts, then federal courts, and finally landed in the highest court of all, the U.S. Supreme Court.

Justices ruled in his favor in 1984. Prosecutors decided not to retry the case and dismissed the charges. Ross was set free after 14 years of incarceration, and a judge later expunged his record.

Daniel Hubert Ross is no longer a convicted felon.

But records have a way of lingering, and Ross, who now lives in Maryland and works for the federal government, discovered that in January when he tried to buy a hunting rifle at a pawnshop in North Carolina.

The clerk took his name, disappeared for a few moments and returned with bad news. A criminal background check listed his murder conviction, and the clerk couldn't accept his $300 or give him a gun. Felons are barred from owning firearms.

The clerk inadvertently dredged up a part of Ross' past he thought he had buried, both legally and mentally, forever. After the pawnshop check, his old conviction surfaced again when he said he was denied access to a White House tour. And his employers at the Environmental Protection Agency, where he helps approve grants, began asking questions.

Last week, Ross, acting as his own lawyer, sued the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, demanding that his record reflect the Supreme Court's decision and that he be allowed to buy the hunting rifle.

Ross says in his suit that the government has "created and continues to create roadblocks to basic necessities making it extremely easy for law enforcement, employers and others to discriminate" against him "in employment, education, professional licensing and loans to rebuild his life, support his family and become a productive member of the community."

Ross, who lives in Prince George's County, had worked as a security guard and owned a handgun in Virginia. He said police are improperly using his arrest record to impugn his integrity. He's seeking a permanent injunction prohibiting the government from labeling him "an irresponsible and dangerous felon."

I'm usually leery of writing about lawsuits filed by people without attorneys. Anyone can file anything in court, accusing anybody of anything, but at least when a lawyer draws up the papers, it usually demonstrates that someone with a legal background believes the argument has some merit.

But I was intrigued by Ross' claim. There is no doubt that he shot and killed in wife during an argument, though he said he was unable to adequately prove his claim of self-defense, that his wife stabbed him in the back of the neck and he "turned around shooting."

The Supreme Court's case revolved around whether North Carolina law at the time unfairly placed the burden of proving self-defense on defendants and whether the judge should have instructed the jury that they could consider Ross' claims.

Justice William J. Brennan wrote the opinion, ruling unconstitutional the state's law shifting "to the defendant the burden of disproving an essential element of a crime." The chief justice at the time, William H. Rehnquist, dissented, scoffing that the "decision will make less sense to laymen than it does to lawyers."

The real question, of course, is whether Ross' past should prevent him from buying a gun. Common sense would seem to say that since he's no longer a convicted felon, and since he's had a clean record since he was released nearly a quarter-century ago, he should enjoy all the rights bestowed on all citizens.

Did North Carolina and federal authorities simply fail to update Ross' criminal record to indicate he won on appeal? Should the cops have erased the record altogether? Or does the conviction still matter when you want to buy a gun, even if the conviction was overturned? And why can't North Carolina authorities simply look up the court record and correct their own record?

No one would answer those questions.

Federal authorities kept referring me to Justice Department lawyers who would not comment on the question generally, saying it was hypothetical, and then declined to comment on the specifics of Ross' case, saying the details were not public.

Either way, the feds say it's up to the state of North Carolina to fix Ross' record if it needs fixing, and then they will go from there. And authorities in that state refused to comment on the case. That might give you a good indication of why Ross is taking this to court.

Ross' official denial is in the form of a letter from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which conducted a "Firearm Denial Appeal Review." That letter informed Ross that the information he gave them — including the Supreme Court decision and the judge's ruling to expunge his record — was "insufficient to authorize your eligibility to purchase or redeem a firearm."

This agency is a branch of the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice.

An FBI spokesman in Washington, Bill Carter, declined to comment on Ross or his lawsuit but said his investigators rely on information provided by local authorities. "We can only go by what the state has in its records system," he told me.

He sent me to Steve Fischer, a spokesman for the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division located in West Virginia, a repository for criminal background files. He too said that "the system is only as good as the information" it has.

That brings us to North Carolina, and another dead end.

Noelle Talley, the spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Justice, which oversees that state's Bureau of Investigation, which sent Ross' criminal background information to the feds, said the law prohibits her from releasing information about criminal records.

"However, any individual has the right to review his own criminal history record and challenge it if needed," Talley said in an e-mail.

Ross told me he hasn't requested that information from North Carolina and said the federal authorities should have his up-to-date information regardless of what the locals have on file. "It's a game," he said, "and I'm not going to play it."

Trying to resolve this through North Carolina officials might give Ross a better chance at correcting his record. It might be as simple as convincing the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation of the judge's order to expunge his conviction.

But maybe the issue is more complicated. Maybe Ross has found another quirky case worthy of judicial input. And maybe he gets another chance to seek help from the U.S. Supreme Court. It's been a while, but someone there might still remember him.

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