The Samuel Hill Story

According to the law, Sam Hill should have been released prison ten years ago. He should be spending time with his grandson. He should be paying taxes.

Instead, he's costing taxpayers more than $29,000 per year so the federal government can give him a lumpy mattress to sleep on, three meals a day, heat in the winter, air-conditioning in the summer and health care for a paltry $2.00 co-pay. Sam, and others in a similar situation, have cost taxpayers millions of dollars in unnecessary expenses.

But don't blame Sam. He has done everything he can to clear this up with the courts; but to no avail. U.S. District Judge Henry Lee Adams, Jr. agrees that Sam was mistakenly sentenced to an incremental 15 years beyond which Congress intended. However, Judge Adams doesn't have the authority to do anything about it - or so the conventional wisdom goes.

Enter Frank Amodeo; a very unconventional lawyer. More accurately, a former lawyer. A former bankruptcy attorney, to be precise. Mr. Amodeo lost his license to practice law back in 1993. Today he helps federal inmates with their legal work for free. Making and keeping appointments with his pro bono clients is easy because Mr. Amodeo is also an inmate. In 2009, Mr. Amodeo was sentenced to more than 20 years in federal prison for tax evasion – to the tune of $181 million.

Mr. Amodeo was a gifted corporate strategist. He knew how to acquire distressed companies, assimilate them into a larger whole and create a more efficient and profitable outcome. At the time of his sentencing, Mr. Amodeo had successfully applied these strategies to more than 85 companies. Unfortunately, two of these companies - just two - had failed to report and remit payroll taxes over a two-year period and were already $50 million in debt to the IRS. The IRS had no idea of the actual amount of the taxes that were due.

Mr. Amodeo made an appointment with the IRS and informed them of the problem. He offered a comprehensive repayment schedule and a check for nearly $1 million. Over the next twenty-one months, Mr. Amodeo, along with a team of corporate accountants and lawyers, ¬helped recover more than $70 million for the IRS that had previously been written off by the agency. Then the government decided to indict Mr. Amodeo.

Mr. Amodeo entered the low security prison in Coleman, Florida, intent on clearing his name through legal appeals, both to his sentence and to his conviction. He knew the latter would prove the bigger challenge, given it was the result of an ill-advised guilty plea that he reluctantly agreed to while under the influence of psychotropic drugs for a previously diagnosed bi-polar disorder.

But Mr. Amodeo underestimated the learning curve he would go through in the transition from bankruptcy law to criminal law. Despite graduating in the top of his class from Emory University's prestigious George Washington School of Law, he needed to ‘go back to school,’ in this field, because the application of criminal law in America's post-conviction process is a system even more complex than the U.S. tax code.

Mr. Amodeo got a job as a clerk in the prison's law library, a 450 square foot space that would double as his classroom. There he met Ray Miller; a compatriot of sorts. Ray had also been an attorney in his previous life. Ray's experience was in criminal law. He had spent 25 years as a criminal defense attorney handling cases in Florida state courts. But he had no experience in the federal labyrinth. Since bankruptcy is primarily a federal issue, Mr. Amodeo understood the jurisdictional landscape better. Their experiences complimented one another.

However, the partnership was not to last as Ray's own single-year term was nearly over when the two became acquainted. Like Mr. Amodeo, Ray was helping a few inmates for free.

Unable to complete the lengthy post-conviction process for many of them before his release, Ray suggested they put their faith in Mr. Amodeo to carry their cause forward. One of those faithful was Sam Hill.

A Vietnam War era navy veteran, Sam dabbled in a variety of occupations after his honorable discharge in 1967: auto mechanic, car salesman, insurance salesman, acoustic ceiling specialist. At one point, Sam narrowly missed becoming a police officer for the Vero Beach Police Department. But it was farming that would get him in trouble with the law, and eventually result in his current decades-long sentence.

Sam had purchased five acres of property in Hernando County, Florida, where he started an extensive commercial greenhouse business. Using a sophisticated hydroponics system, he was capable of producing as much as 25,000 pounds of tomatoes and cucumbers a year. But the lure of unnatural profits in marijuana would seduce him and ultimately lead to his first arrest; a possession charge in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, in 1983 that produced a sentence of 11 months and 29 days. When he returned home to Hernando County, he was arrested again as part of the original scheme. This second possession charge would earn him an additional seven years of probation.

Sam went straight. He sold the greenhouse business and bought into a partnership in a pawn shop, the only one in Hernando County at the time. That was in 1986. Even back then there was a mountain of forms to fill out; the usual governmental red tape made even more complicated when applying for a pawn shop license.

A year later there was a burglary at the pawn shop. He reported the break-in to the local authorities, showing them his books and inventory. After a brief investigation, the police acted quickly. They arrested Sam. It turned out he wasn't supposed to be buying and selling guns through the pawn shop because he was a convicted felon. Never mind that this restriction never came up during his licensing process when he bought the store.

The State of Florida sentenced him to a year and a day in prison. And, the burglars who broke in and stole Sam's merchandise were never found or arrested.

Since the pawn shop was no longer viable, Sam got into the auction business. Back in those days it was more commonly called the junk business, but today's reality TV makes auction sound so much nicer. Still, Sam was pretty good at it, making a decent living for four years.

Looking for a little extra income, he decided to get back into hydroponics gardening but on a much smaller scale. Sam installed an 18' x 24' greenhouse on a new five-acre plot of land he had purchased with the proceeds of this pawn shop sale. Instead of vegetables, Sam focused his efforts on ornamentals: stag horn ferns and orchids.

Then in 1993, a friend familiar with Sam's past asked if he would consider growing cannabis for her personal use. She didn't have a clue how to go about buying it, but she had read numerous studies praising its medicinal benefits. The woman had cancer, a disease she would later die from. Sam agreed but, as had happened so many years before, word spread. Many others made similar requests. Sam was fully aware that most were simply seeking a supply for recreational use. While his initial motive may have been altruistic, he readily admits the numerous appeals spoke to his baser instincts. He was good at growing potent pot. The money was just a bonus.

He justified the operation by its small size - 80 healthy plants - and a few customers who genuinely seemed to need the plant for its apothecary uses. But no amount of justification would get him past the law, and he was arrested again. Sam knew he was going back to prison. And this time it would be a federal offense. His attorney didn't need to say much to convince him of his guilt. Sam was ready to plead. His attorney told him he was looking at as much as five years. But the government had other plans.

The government decided that Sam qualified as a "career offender." One of the prerequisites the government cited was a charge for carrying a concealed weapon back in 1983 when he was first charged with marijuana possession. The weapon, a .22 caliber pistol legally owned by his wife, had been locked in the glove compartment of his car. But Sam was never convicted of the charge. When he agreed to plead guilty to marijuana possession, the government agreed to drop the weapon charge.

Nevertheless, the court had used the uncharged offense as a reason for enhancing his 1983 sentence for the possession conviction. More than ten years later, both the government and the federal courts, especially the Eleventh Circuit encompassing Florida, Georgia, and Alabama - saw the "carrying a concealed weapon" charge as a crime of violence. In 1998, at the age of 51, Sam Hill was sentenced to an incremental 15 years or a total of 20.

Sam filed a series of appeals. Each failed. Sam spent his last dollar for the help of a jailhouse lawyer, another inmate, in drafting his final appeal. That too failed. But Ray Miller saw that Sam's case had merit based on shifting court opinion. A similar case originating in the Eleventh Circuit determined that a concealed weapon did not qualify as a crime of violence. (1) Without that label, Sam didn't qualify as a career criminal. But Ray didn't have the time to steer Sam's case through the Byzantine path concocted by Congress, so he handed it off to Mr. Amodeo. That was in 2009.

Mr. Amodeo knew that getting Sam back in court would be a challenge, no matter how strong his case. Congress had passed a series of sweeping laws and rules governing post-conviction appeals which went into effect a dozen years before. (2) Congress, in partnership with the judiciary, developed a comprehensive set of restrictions designed to limit the number and timing of appeals for defendants facing the death penalty. These restrictions were largely aimed at state convicts who used the federal courts to delay their execution for years, even decades. A secondary goal of these substantial changes was to respond to complaints that other state prisoners were clogging the system with frivolous lawsuits.

But neither Congress nor the judiciary acknowledged the underlying causes of the increased court pleadings. Most state and federal laws had been drastically ratcheting-up the length of sentences on a vast array of crimes resulting in dramatic increases in prison populations. Combining overcrowded prisons with desperate inmates, being largely untrained, unskilled and uneducated, naturally resulted in a greater burden for the understaffed judiciary.

The net effect of all the changes was a severe curb on the appellate process - so draconian as to remove a court's ability to correct legitimate mistakes in sentences, even convictions, if too much time had passed or if other petitions had already been exhausted before evolving case law had self-corrected previous misinterpretations.

And so the newly desperate, like Sam, must rely on the benevolence of the newly deposed, like Mr. Amodeo. So far, Mr. Amodeo has been successful in keeping Sam's chances for relief alive. Through a series of unique and sometimes arcane legal pleadings, Mr. Amodeo has persuaded Judge Adams to take a fresh look at Sam's dilemma. And Mr. Amodeo has other newly desperate inmates looking for similar help; inmates like Derrick Hicks, Richard McCoy, Ernest Harmon, and Bobby Boyle all indisputably, illegally sentenced, but barred from relief by a justice system no longer interested in justice.

While Mr. Amodeo has successfully argued for more than 350 years in sentence reductions for more than 200 inmates during the last four years, the newly desperate are growing in numbers faster than he can help them through the long and arduous process. Still, his track record provides hope for the faithful like Sam Hill.

Although there seems to be no universally accepted story of origin for the various phrases incorporating Sam's namesake, there does seem to be some consensus that its general theme is a polite euphemism for Hell. Given Sam's continuing predicament, his parents may have been clairvoyant when they named him.

1) The circuit court had ruled that the sentencing court had correctly determined the defendant (Bryan Archer) was a "career offender" because of a prior conviction for carrying a concealed weapon. That was in 2007. Archer appealed to the Supreme Court, but before his case could be heard, another case dealing with similar issues in defining a "violent felony" for purposes of imposing a more severe sentence, was decided. In that other case, the defendant (Larry Begay) had been qualified for the same enhancement based on prior DUI’s (driving under the influence of alcohol). Begay's sentencing court had determined the DUI’s qualified as crimes of violence. The Supreme Court overturned both sentences. United States v. Archer, 531 F.3d 1347 (2008); Begay v. United States, 553 U.S. 137 (2008).
2) Known as the Anti-Terrorism Effective Death Penalty Act, or AEDPA.