Habitual Offender Law Resulted In Life Sentence For A Black Military Vet After He Sold $30 Of Weed. He’s Now Being Released.
Louisiana prosecutors signed off on the release of Derek Harris, a military veteran who has spent nine years in prison already.
August 10, 2020 at 10:17 pm
Prosecutors in Louisiana have agreed to release Derek Harris, a military veteran who has spent nine years in Angola State Prison after being arrested for selling less than $30 worth of marijuana and sentenced to life in prison, according to WAFB.
In July, Harris was given a new trial by the Louisiana Supreme Court after his new lawyers said the attorney he was initially provided in 2012 did not fight the harsh sentence.
"We've held onto the faith that, you know, someday that things would be right," said his brother Antoine Harris.
"His attorney at the time was just silent, never once appealed it or said I don't agree with it or anything. He was virtually just quiet, so his counsel was ineffective. And the Supreme Court ruled that he did have ineffective counsel," Antoine told WAFB. "He's still a little bit ... all shocked about all of this because we've been working at this for a long time trying to obtain his freedom and now finally it's here, so it's a bit overwhelming for him as well as us."
According to WAFB, Derek was given the life sentence in 2012 based on his 2008 arrest for marijuana. He was initially given a 15-year sentence, but that was increased to life in prison with the application of the state's habitual offender law.
The law has been routinely criticized for causing the state to lead the country in the number of people sentenced to life and for causing the state's high incarceration rate, according to The Appeal.
According to CNN, Derek sold an officer .69 grams of marijuana in 2008.
“I believe it is unconscionable to impose a life-sentence-without-benefit upon this Defendant who served his country on the field of battle and returned home to find his country offered him no help for his drug addiction problem. It is an incomprehensible, needless, tragic waste of a human life for the sake of slavish adherence to the technicalities of law,” Judge Sylvia Cooks, of Louisiana’s Third Circuit Court of Appeal, said in a 2013 dissenting opinion, according to The Appeal.
Derek's lawyer Cormac Boyle told CNN that prosecutors in Vermilion Parish had decided to change Derek's sentence to time served following the hearing granted by the Louisiana Supreme Court.
"His prior offenses were nonviolent and related to his untreated dependency on drugs," Louisiana Supreme Court Justice John Weimer wrote in his opinion, according to CNN.
It is unclear when exactly Derek will be released, but his brother said he would be moving with him to Kentucky once he gets out.
Boyle said Derek struggled to adjust after coming home from serving in the U.S. Army during Desert Storm.
Weimer admitted throughout his opinion that it was clear Derek was not a "drug kingpin" and that he should not have been given such a harsh sentence.
Weimer said Derek had "developed a substance abuse problem after returning from his honorable military service in Desert Storm, and his prior offenses were nonviolent and related to his untreated dependency on drugs,” according to WWLP.
In a statement, Boyle said Derek lost his mother while he was in prison.
“To me, a piece of her life was gone then. She had a broken heart, you know, because one of her kids is locked up in a cage for the rest of his life for nothing more than petty drug crimes,” Antoine told The Appeal last year.
The Louisiana Supreme Court decision comes just a week after five white male justices on the same court voted to uphold the life sentence of a man accused of stealing hedge clippers, as Blavity previously reported.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, the court's only Black judge and only woman, was the sole member to vote against the sentence, calling it "excessive and disproportionate."