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CUNNINGHAM v. WILLIAMS

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA


May 12, 1989

EUGENE JEROME CUNNINGHAM, Petitioner,
v.
HALLEM H. WILLIAMS, Respondent, and UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Intervenor

Joyce Hens Green, United States District Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: GREEN

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JOYCE HENS GREEN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

 Eugene Jerome Cunningham filed the instant petition for habeas corpus on December 30, 1988, asserting that his mandatory minimum sentence of twenty years, imposed for his conviction for first-degree felony murder in 1973, should be reduced pursuant to the provisions of the District of Columbia Good Time Credits Act of 1986 (the "Act"). Petitioner claims that respondent's failure to grant him good time credits under the Act violates his rights to equal protection and due process and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Having considered Mr. Cunningham's petition, the response of Hallem H. Williams Jr., the opposition and supplemental opposition of the United States, *fn1" petitioner's reply, and the entire record, the petition is granted and respondent is directed to recalculate petitioner's minimum sentence by awarding Mr. Cunningham good time credits, as appropriate, in accordance with the Act.

 I. BACKGROUND

 On March 23, 1973, after he was found guilty of first degree felony murder in violation of D.C. Code § 22-2401 before Judge George L. Hart of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, petitioner was sentenced to a minimum of not less than twenty years imprisonment and a maximum of life imprisonment. The penalty for first degree murder in the District of Columbia is set forth at D.C. Code § 22-2404 which states in relevant part:

 

(a) The punishment of murder in the first degree shall be life imprisonment.

 

(b) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a person convicted of first-degree murder and upon whom a sentence of life imprisonment is imposed shall be eligible for parole only after the expiration of 20 years from the date he commences to serve his sentence.

 In 1986, the District of Columbia enacted the District of Columbia Good Time Credits Act of 1986. As codified, it states in relevant part:

 

Every person who is convicted of a violation of a District of Columbia ("District") criminal law by a court in the District of Columbia, imprisoned in a District correctional facility, and whose conduct is in conformity with all applicable institutional rules is entitled to good time credits in accordance with the provisions of this section.

 D.C. Code § 24-428(a).

 The Act also provided certain exceptions to the provision for institutional good time credits. The Enrolled Original of the 1986 Act provided:

 

Sec. 8. Exceptions

 

Institutional and educational good time credits shall not be applied to the minimum terms of persons sentenced under the District of Columbia Mandatory-Minimum Sentences Initiative of 1981, effective March 9, 1982 (D.C. Law 4-166; D.C. Code, secs. 22-3202, 33-501 & 33-541). *fn2"

 

As codified, this provision reads:

 

Institutional and educational good time credits shall not be applied to the minimum terms of persons sentenced under §§ 22-3202, 33-501 and 33-541.

 D.C. Code § 24-434.

 The central issue in this case is whether the Good Time Credits Act of 1986 repeals the mandatory twenty-year minimum sentence required by D.C. Code § 22-2404. For the reasons set forth below, the Court concludes that it does. Petitioner is therefore entitled to institutional good time credits in accordance with the Act's schedule.

 II. DISCUSSION

 Petitioner's basic argument is that because D.C. Code § 22-2404, under which he was sentenced in 1973, is not specifically excepted from the provision for institutional good time credits under the Act, he is entitled to such credits in order to calculate his minimum parole eligibility date. That the Act makes specific exceptions in D.C. Code § 24-434 for persons serving minimum terms imposed by D.C. Code §§ 22-3202, 33-501 and 33-541, petitioner argues, implies that the D.C. Council intended to exclude from the exception provision prisoners serving sentences under all other D.C. Code provisions not named. Claiming that this silence is deliberate, petitioner maintains that his sentence under § 22-2404 has not been excluded from the Act's provision for institutional good time credits and that his minimum eligibility date for parole should be reduced according to the Act's schedule. Because both the language and the purpose of the Act support petitioner's argument, the Court agrees.

 The most fundamental principle in interpretation of a statute is that the starting point must be the language of the statute itself. Lewis v. United States, 445 U.S. 55, 60, 63 L. Ed. 2d 198, 100 S. Ct. 915 (1980). That language must be given conclusive weight unless the legislature expresses an intention to the contrary. Consumer Product Safety Comm'n v. GTE Sylvania, Inc., 447 U.S. 102, 108, 64 L. Ed. 2d 766, 100 S. Ct. 2051 (1980). The ordinary and natural reading of the D.C. Good Time Credits Act is that petitioner is entitled to institutional good time credits. D.C. Code § 24-428(a) states that " every person who is convicted of a violation of a District of Columbia ("District") criminal law by a court in the District of Columbia, imprisoned in a District correctional facility . . . is entitled to good time credits." (emphasis added). It is undisputed that petitioner falls within this statutory language. Respondent and intervenor nevertheless argue that the Council which passed the Act did not intend that it apply to persons sentenced under § 22-2404. They might have a stronger argument that the Act does not apply to petitioner if § 24-428(a) were the only relevant provision in the Act. However, the District of Columbia Council which passed the Act chose to enumerate specific exceptions to the above provision. The Council clearly had knowledge of former statutes, for § 24-434 excludes three of them, § 22-3202, § 33-501, and § 33-541, from the broad reach of the Act's provision for awarding good time credits. Conspicuously absent from this list is D.C. Code § 22-2404(b), under which petitioner was sentenced. That the District of Columbia Council chose to except certain sections from the broad reach of the Act and omit others evinces a clear intent that the Act's provision for good time credits applies to every prisoner convicted and sentenced under a D.C. statute other than those specifically listed in D.C. Code § 24-434.

 Intervenor vehemently argues that the language "Notwithstanding any other provision of law" in D.C. Code § 22-2404(b) manifests a legislative intent that the mandatory twenty-year minimum be absolute and admit of no exceptions. Intervenor's argument, to use the precise language of its brief, is that "this introductory language to the penalty for first-degree murder precludes any attempt at repeal of the penalty by implication." United States' Opposition to Issuance of Writ of Habeas Corpus ("U.S. Opp."), p. 5. Intervenor attempts to distinguish D.C. Code § 22-2404(b) from the code sections excepted from the Act (set forth in D.C. Code § 24-434) based on the fact that these latter code sections "[do] not contain specific language against repeal by implication." Id. at 5, n.5. Although the Court recognizes the often cited rule that repeals by implication are not favored and that the intention of the legislature to repeal must be clear and manifest, see Andrus v. Glover Construction Company, 446 U.S. 608, 618, 64 L. Ed. 2d 548, 100 S. Ct. 1905 (1980); Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill, 437 U.S. 153, 189-190, 57 L. Ed. 2d 117, 98 S. Ct. 2279 (1978) (quoting Posadas v. National City Bank, 296 U.S. 497, 503, 80 L. Ed. 351, 56 S. Ct. 349 (1936)); United States v. United Continental Tuna Corp., 425 U.S. 164, 168, 47 L. Ed. 2d 653, 96 S. Ct. 1319 (1976), here the Council has spoken in unambiguous terms. The District of Columbia Good Time Credits Act gives an affirmative benefit to all prisoners in District of Columbia Correctional Facilities and provides only narrow and specific exceptions to the award of this benefit. Because § 22-2404 is not specifically excluded from the Act, as one would expect if the D.C. Council intended it to be so excluded, the Court can only conclude that the Council intended that persons sentenced under it be entitled to good time credits. *fn3"

 Furthermore, the natural meaning of the phrase "notwithstanding any other provision of law" is law existing at the time § 22-2404(b) was passed. The Good Time Credits Act was passed subsequent to § 22-2404(b). Accepting the position urged by intervenor would mean that the Council could never modify former law. The Court refuses to endorse such a patently untenable position. Furthermore, as stated above, the D.C. Council spoke in no uncertain terms when it enacted the Good Time Credits Act. Had it desired to exclude § 22-2404(b) from the Act's reach, it clearly knew how to do so and it could have done so, but it did not do so. The Act's language is clear. *fn4"

  An examination of the sections excluded from the Act in § 24-434 also supports this conclusion. As the Enrolled Original of the 1986 Act indicates, the Council intended to except from the Act's provisions persons sentenced under the District of Columbia Mandatory-Minimum Sentences Initiative of 1981. D.C. Code § 22-3202 imposes mandatory minimum sentences for persons who commit a crime of violence while armed. D.C. Code § 33-541 imposes mandatory minimum sentences for persons who manufacture, distribute, or possess, with intent to manufacture or distribute, a controlled substance. *fn5" That the Council specifically excluded persons sentenced under these provisions from the benefits of the Act would therefore appear redundant, unless it indicates a deference to the electorate (which passed the Mandatory-Minimum Sentences Initiative of 1981) or a specific intent of the Council only to exclude these mandatory minimum sentences from the benefits of the Act. Either interpretation supports the position which petitioner urges, i.e., that because § 22-2404 was not specifically excluded from the Act, persons sentenced under it are entitled to the Act's benefits.

 The purpose of the Act also supports the conclusion the Court reaches today. To paraphrase respondent Williams who testified before the Committee on the Judiciary of the D.C. Council, the Act was meant to provide added positive motivation for inmates to obey institutional regulations, diligently perform work assignments and involve themselves productively in academic and vocational pursuits; it also meant to represent a prudent, innovative approach to population management. *fn6" This statutory purpose is clearly applicable to persons, like the instant petitioner, sentenced under § 22-2404. We agree that standing alone, this purpose would not be a sufficient basis upon which to conclude that the petitioner is entitled to the benefits of the Act. But when combined with the clear legislative intent as expressed in the explicit language of the Act, it leads inexorably to the conclusion that petitioner is entitled to good time credits under the Act. *fn7"

 The Court understands the concerns expressed by intervenor that petitioner has been convicted of a heinous crime. Yet this concern cannot override the clearly expressed intent of the legislature to provide good time credits to prisoners such as Mr. Cunningham who have been sentenced under D.C. Code § 22-2404. Had the Council intended to exclude prisoners sentenced under this section from the Act, it could have done so. Indeed, the D.C. Council may so act in the future. But until such time as it does, the Court is required to enforce the express intent of the legislature as set forth in the plain language of the Act. *fn8"

 III. CONCLUSION

 For the reasons set forth above, it is hereby

 ORDERED that the petition for a writ of habeas corpus shall be granted and respondent Hallem H. Williams, Jr. shall compute Eugene J. Cunningham's good time credits against the minimum term to which he has been sentenced in order to determine the date of eligibility for release on parole in accordance with the provisions of the District of Columbia Good Time Credits Act. *fn9"

 IT IS SO ORDERED.

 May 12, 1989


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