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Court: Inmate on release has hearing rights

Published Oct. 1, 2005

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Oklahoma violated the due process rights of a convicted murderer when, without a hearing and on fewer than five hours' notice, he was ordered back to prison after months of trouble-free freedom under an early release program.

In a unanimous opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court held that an inmate released under a program to relieve prison crowding cannot be reincarcerated without a hearing to allow him to try to show he has met the conditions of the program and is entitled to remain free.

The justices rejected Oklahoma's argument that because an inmate on an early release program remains under the prison system's supervision, revoking the release is simply a change in the conditions of confinement.

The Supreme Court has ruled that an inmate is not entitled to a hearing before a transfer from a low-security prison to higher-security one. Thomas said the relevant analogy was not to a transfer from one prison to another but to parole, which under a 1972 Supreme Court precedent cannot be revoked without a hearing.

The court also heard arguments Tuesday in a closely watched death penalty case from Virginia. Inmate Joseph O'Dell III argues he was constitutionally entitled to inform members of the jury that sentenced him to death in 1988 that if given a life sentence, he would be ineligible for parole and so would not present a continuing danger to society.

The high court ruled in 1994 that a capital defendant is entitled to such a jury instruction when the prosecution makes future dangerousness an issue. The question Tuesday was whether the ruling should be applied retroactively.