In 2008, a U.S. military veteran, Derek Harris was arrested in Louisiana for attempting to sell 0.69 grams of marijuana to an officer of the law for $30 . Harris was later convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison, of which he has served 9 years. In 2012, his sentence was increased to life in prison under the Habitual Offender Law, a “3-strike” law that allows convicts with prior charges to be given stricter punishments, typically life in prison.
Harris’s prior offenses were termed non-violent and had occurred long before his most recent run-in with the law. He was arrested for selling cocaine in 1991 and later convicted of simple robbery in 1992 and 1993. He also served time for simple burglary in 1997 and theft under $500 in 2005.
The judge at his resentencing reportedly claimed that Harris had committed so many petty crimes that he had no other choice than to condemn the man to life in prison.
The case was reopened after Harris appealed against inadequate representation at his court hearing. The Louisiana Supreme Court sided with Harris after reviewing his appeal, stating that the man had “ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing on post-conviction review.” Harris said his defense attorney did not protest the sentence or speak up in his defense as the judge sentenced him to life in prison for less than a gram (0.69g) of marijuana.
According to his new attorney, Cormac Boyle, Prosecutors at the 15th Judicial District Attorney Keith Stutes’ office in Vermilion Parish have agreed to release Harris since he has served enough time in prison already.
In defense of a troubled veteran
Louisiana Supreme Court Justice, John Weimer wrote in his legal opinion that Harris’s trial judge had confirmed that the accused did not fit the description of a drug kingpin or a drug dealer. This was the reason why he wasn’t slammed with a maximum 30-year sentence at his first trial.
“His prior offenses were nonviolent and related to his untreated dependency on drugs,” Louisiana Supreme Court Justice John Weimer wrote.
Harris had developed a drug problem when he returned to the U.S. following his exit from Desert Storm, a U.S. military operation that oversaw Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Harris’s lawyer is presently coordinating with the Louisiana Department of Corrections to have him released as soon as possible. He will no longer remain in Louisiana but is expected to move to Kentucky to stay with his brother, Antoine, and be closer to his family.
Society needs a few reality checks
Harris’s case inadvertently struck up several conversations about the Habitual Offender Law and the treatment of war veterans across the country. The HOL has been severally accused of prejudice against people of color, evident in the outrageous sentences often meted out to convicts with minor offenses .
The HOL works with the so-called “3 Strikes, You’re Out” rule, imposing a mandatory life sentence on criminals who have committed certain crimes repeatedly. Since its enactment in 1994, the law has been accused of dragging the American judicial back several centuries, causing overpopulation in prisons, meting out sentences disproportionately, and outright racial prejudice against minorities and people of color.
A case similar to Harris’s but with a less encouraging outcome is that of Fair Wayne Bryant, a 62-year-old African-American male who was sentenced to life in prison by the Louisiana Supreme Court for stealing a pair of hedge clippers . Before his sentencing in 1997, he’d been previously convicted of petty crimes such as possession of stolen items, check forgery, and breaking into an uninhabited building.
He was finally sentenced to life in 1997 for stealing hedge clippers. Wayne has spent 23 years in prison and his appeal for a review of his sentencing was denied by the Supreme Court in a widely criticized ruling. Five white male judges voted to uphold the sentencing while a lone black female judge, the only African-American and also the only female on the panel, voted for an overturn.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson later stated that “the sentence imposed is excessive and disproportionate to the offense the defendant committed.”
Also, the reality of U.S. war veterans needs to be checked. These men and women give their lives in service to protect their country, only to return home to a life where they must struggle to find their feet. The demands of war and combat exposure will often result in a mental and physical breakdown, and lack of adequate care upon return to the home base is an escalation of their suffering. According to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 1 in 15 veterans suffers a substance use disorder . Also, about 20 to 30 percent of war veterans suffer PTSD, sometimes in conjunction with drug and alcohol problems.
Veterans have access to poor and limited health care and are grossly underpaid for their priceless service to the country. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) “estimates that 40,056 veterans are homeless on any given night” . Harris’s story and its resurgence to the media is a call for the country to review its efforts and budgets toward veteran welfare and care.
These heroes deserve more.
- Kay Jones and Scottie Andrews. A man who was sentenced to life in prison for selling $30 of marijuana will be freed. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2020/08/08/us/man-freed-life-sentence-marijuana-trnd/index.html Retrieved 17-08-2020
- 10 REASONS TO OPPOSE “3 STRIKES, YOU’RE OUT“. ACLU. https://www.aclu.org/other/10-reasons-oppose-3-strikes-youre-out Retrieved 17-08-2020
- Kay Jones and Leah Asmelash. Louisiana Supreme Court upholds Black man’s life sentence for stealing hedge clippers more than 20 years ago. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2020/08/06/us/louisiana-supreme-court-trnd/index.html Retrieved 17-08-2020
- PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/related/substance_abuse_vet.asp Retrieved 17-08-2020
- FAQ ABOUT HOMELESS VETERANS. NCHV. http://nchv.org/index.php/news/media/background_and_statistics/#:~:text=Although%20flawless%20counts%20are%20impossible,homeless%20on%20any%20given%20night. Retrieved 17-08-2020
- John Jenkins. Habitual offender. Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/habitual-offender Retrieved 17-08-2020