UPDATE: Freed burglar says Missouri court system is broken

Wednesday, September 8, 2010 | 4:04 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Dwight Laughlin says he learned two important lessons while serving 17 years in a state prison to which the Missouri Supreme Court ruled he never should have been sent.

"First of all, being a criminal is the stupidest thing you can ever do," the recently released Laughlin, 51, said by phone Tuesday evening.

"But I think people already know that," Laughlin added. "The biggest thing I learned from this is our system isn't working as it's supposed to."

Until recently, Laughlin had 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 post office in the southwest Missouri city of Neosho.

He was released several days after the Supreme Court's Aug. 23 ruling that the state had no jurisdiction over his case. The high court said the state had no right to charge, convict and sentence Laughlin because the burglary occurred on federal property over which the U.S. government has exclusive authority to enforce laws.

Laughlin received a lengthy state sentence because he was considered a persistent offender.

A spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Corrections said Wednesday that Laughlin received a three-year sentence in 1981 for burglary and stealing in Newton County and a 12-year sentence for six second-degree burglaries that occurred in 1983 in McDonald County. He was on parole for those when he was arrested for breaking into the Neosho post office, said Corrections Department spokeswoman Jacqueline Lapine.

Had Laughlin been convicted in federal court, his sentence likely would have been significantly shorter. Current federal law specifies a five-year sentence for burglary.

Laughlin doesn't claim to be innocent.

But he expressed frustration that it took so long for Missouri's judiciary to determine he had been tried in the wrong court. He said he attempted to raise the issue himself to numerous judges over the years, and none of the five attorneys assigned to his case during that time aggressively pursued it.

"The lower courts don't want to make a ruling on a case because they are trying to be re-elected, and they don't want to be soft on crime by letting someone go because their case wasn't done properly. It's better just to ignore it," Laughlin said.

Laughlin now is living in a trailer on property owned by his mother in Neosho. He said he recently applied for food stamps and doesn't yet have a job, though he hopes to attend truck driving school.

Missouri has a law granting compensation to people proven innocent by DNA evidence, but it has no specific law addressing a case such as Laughlin's. Laughlin said he has not decided whether to sue to seek some sort of compensation.

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