Editorial: A perplexing court ruling

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A judge on Tuesday asked for more medical evidence before determining whether federal fraud convict Jack Holden, 79, should be considered for compassionate release during the coronavirus pandemic.

Oregon’s Federal Public Defender Lisa Hay urged that Holden be released immediately to his daughter’s home under home detention pending the judge’s final decision.

“We’re going to watch this unfold and be horrified, because once it is spread in prison, we will not be able to stop it,’’ Hay said, during a hearing by phone before U.S. District Judge Anna J. Brown. “We should consider this urgent.’’

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Donna Maddux argued there was no urgency until Holden’s medical records could be fully obtained and reviewed, and his victims can be heard.

Hay had argued in a motion Friday afternoon that Holden, an elderly man who suffers from a heart condition and diabetes, is particularly susceptible of being exposed to the new coronavirus while confined in the federal prison in Sheridan where social distancing is impossible and hand sanitizer is contraband because of its alcohol content.

“There’s really not any way to keep the virus out of Sheridan,’’ Hay argued. “If we don’t act now, it will probably be too late to get him out of the prison.’’

If Holden were to become infected with COVID-19, his lawyer said he’d likely require hospitalization.

“He will be one more strain on the health system that really can’t handle that ,’’ Hay said.

Holden lives in a dorm with about 30 other inmates at Sheridan’s federal prison. He sits elbow-to-elbow with other inmates who now only can talk by phone with family or their attorneys, and the phones aren’t even sanitized after each conversation, Hay told the judge.

“He’s using a phone just used by another person, directly up to their face,’’ Hay said. “We need to get the most vulnerable people out of prison.’’

Maddux countered that victims in Holden’s case are opposed to his release and should have a chance to be heard.

The government doesn’t dispute the coronavirus pandemic is creating major problems, but Maddux noted that no federal inmate in Oregon has tested positive.

According to the federal Bureau of Prisons’ website, there are three inmates and three staff in the federal prison system from across the country who have contracted the virus. But Maddox said during the hearing that the federal prisons bureau had confirmed Tuesday morning by phone that the number of federal inmates who have contracted COVID-19 had risen to six.

Maddux argued there’s no urgency or immediate risk “as it pertains to Sheridan or Mr. Holden at this time,’’ and questioned why Holden would be safer being released to live with his daughter in Washington state, one of the epicenters of the coronavirus outbreak .

“We don’t believe weighing all these factors, there’s an emergency created by COVID-19 in Sheridan that requires the court to make a decision today or go around the procedures that are in place,’’ Maddux said.

The judge set another hearing for April 1, and asked for medical records or other proof that Holden’s physical or mental health has been deteriorating.

Holden has 21 months left of his seven year, three month sentence to serve at the Sheridan Federal Correctional Institution for his 2016 conviction on mail and wire fraud, money laundering and conspiracy charges stemming from his role in a fraudulent biodiesel scheme that spanned three continents.

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