UPDATE: Missouri court orders release of convicted burglar

Monday, August 23, 2010 | 11:35 a.m. CDT; updated 5:01 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 23, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — A man who spent 17 years in prison for burglarizing a post office was ordered released Monday by the Missouri Supreme Court because he was tried in the wrong court.

Missouri's high court ruled the state had no jurisdiction to charge, convict and sentence Dwight Laughlin because the burglary occurred on federal property over which the U.S. government has exclusive authority to enforce laws.

Laughlin, 51, has been serving a 40-year state prison sentence for first-degree burglary and first-degree property damage stemming from a February 1993 break-in at a Neosho post office.

It was not immediately clear Monday when he would be released from prison.

Laughlin's attorney, Ginger Gooch of Springfield, said she had not spoken to him yet Monday but praised the court ruling as the right result. Gooch was appointed to represent Laughlin after he filed a motion on his own behalf arguing he was being wrongfully imprisoned.

Gooch said she did not argue Laughlin's guilt or innocence before the high court — merely that the case was brought in the wrong legal jurisdiction.

A spokeswoman for Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said the office was reviewing the decision and considering whether to request further review.

It appears unlikely that Laughlin would face federal charges, because the general five-year deadline to file them has passed. Laughlin, who was sentenced as a repeat offender, already has served more time in prison than the five year-sentence specified under the federal statute for burglary.

Laughlin was arrested by Neosho police, who discovered him inside the post office after a burglar alarm had been tripped. At the scene, police found a scanner tuned to the Neosho police frequency, a flashlight, crowbar, pipe wrench, screwdrivers and bags containing mail, stamps and money. The combination dial had been removed from a post office safe.

The state Supreme Court cited a long-standing Missouri law ceding jurisdiction over federally owned buildings to the U.S. government. It also cited a section of the U.S. Constitution giving the federal government exclusive jurisdiction over its buildings when states accede to that.

"If a criminal judgment was entered by a court without jurisdiction to do so, such a proceeding always should be found to be void," Judge Michael Wolff wrote in the unanimous Supreme Court opinion.

The Missouri attorney general's office had argued that Laughlin's state conviction should stand because he formed his intent to burglarize while on property under state jurisdiction and carried the tools for a burglary through downtown Neosho.

But the Supreme Court said Missouri law requires conduct — not just mental thought — for a criminal offense to have occurred.

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