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4th Circuit upholds ‘compassionate release’ denial for Baltimore convict

Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory wrote the opinion for the unanimous 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel. (AP File Photo/Steve Helber)

An immunocompromised federal inmate who contracted COVID-19 was validly denied early release from prison based on the seriousness of his conviction for having participated in gang-related drug trafficking in northwest Baltimore, a U.S. appeals court ruled Wednesday.

In a published 3-0 decision, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Dwight Jenkins made a strong case that his immune system disorder, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and borderline diabetes provide an “extraordinary and compelling reason” for a “compassionate release” amid the pandemic.

But the 4th Circuit upheld a federal district court judge’s decision that these factors were outweighed by the “nature and circumstances” of Jenkins’ crime, as well as his history as a repeat drug offender and the need for his prison term to provide just punishment, adequate deterrence and “protect the public from further crimes” by him.

The 4th Circuit’s weighing of Jenkins’ health risks against the seriousness of his crime is called for under the federal First Step Act’s “compassionate release” provision.

The appellate court’s ruling comes amid calls by defense and civil rights attorneys nationwide for the early release of inmates due to the extreme risk COVID-19 poses to them in a prison setting, where social distancing is not possible.

Jenkins was among the more than 225 prisoners at the Federal Correctional Institution Fort Dix in New Jersey who had tested positive for COVID-19 as of November 2020, according to court papers.

During oral arguments in the appeal, the 4th Circuit panel said Jenkins could file another motion for compassionate release based on any change in his health status and the availability of care at the prison, his appellate attorney, Robin M. Earnest, said Wednesday.

“It was quite apparent that he has some health concerns,” said Earnest, adding that she will ask Jenkins about filing a second motion in district court. “He will live to fight another day.”

Motions for compassionate release have been most successful for inmates who have compromised immune systems, were convicted on nonviolent offenses and are nearing the end of their sentences, according to attorneys who have litigated these cases.

Jenkins pleaded guilty in 2017 to racketeering and drug-trafficking conspiracies. He admitted to having sold more than 280 grams of crack cocaine and 75 grams of heroin to a confidential informant, according to court papers.

He was sentenced in April 2017 to 10 years in prison

In pressing for early release last year, Jenkins cited his medical conditions and argued his offenses did not involve violence.

Senior U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake acknowledged Jenkins’ medical condition and that he was not a gang member but noted he had been convicted in 2006 of possession with intent to distribute narcotics and that his most recent drug conviction involved conspiring with members of the Murdaland Mafia Piru gang in Baltimore.

“In making this finding the court is certainly mindful of Jenkins’ COVID-19 diagnosis and hopes for his recovery; his current health status does not persuade the court that it is appropriate to release Jenkins at this time,” Blake wrote in her November 2020 memorandum opinion, noting the seriousness of Jenkins’ misconduct.

“He distributed a large quantity of drugs in furtherance of the activities of a violent gang, contributing to an increasingly dangerous environment in Northwest Baltimore,” added Blake, who sits in the federal courthouse in Baltimore. “The court finds that a reduction in sentence would not adequately protect the public from further crimes by Jenkins.”

Jenkins then appealed to the 4th Circuit.

While the appeal was pending, the 4th Circuit appointed Earnest, a Greenbelt solo practitioner, to represent Jenkins when his prior attorney, Erek L. Barron, withdrew in August after being nominated by President Joe Biden to be the U.S. attorney for Maryland. Barron has since been confirmed and sworn in to the post.

He has recused himself from the Jenkins case.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office did not immediately comment Wednesday on the 4th Circuit’s decision.

Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory wrote the opinion for the 4th Circuit. He was joined by Judges James A. Wynn and Pamela A. Harris.

The 4th Circuit rendered its decision in United States of America v. Dwight Jenkins, No. 20-7746.