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Louisiana Supreme Court Reviews Sentence of Vet Serving Life for $30 Marijuana Sale

Dale Lee argues of the District Attorneys Association asks the Louisiana Supreme Court to uphold Harris's life sentence
Betsy Shepherd
Dale Lee argues of the District Attorneys Association asks the Louisiana Supreme Court to uphold Harris's life sentence

The Louisiana Supreme Court began hearing arguments Monday to review the sentence of a man serving life in prison for a $30 marijuana sale.

Army veteran Derek Harris is serving life without parole for selling less than a gram of marijuana to an undercover police officer in 2008. Prosecutors secured a life sentence because Harris had prior convictions.

Under Louisiana’s Habitual Offender Statute, prosecutors can impose severe prison terms against repeat offenders, even for nonviolent crimes.

Public Defender Danny Engleberg says the Habitual Offender law allows for punishments that are grossly disproportionate to the crimes committed.

"One of the things that we see from this case is the need for reform for our repeat offender laws in how much it takes the discretion away from the judge, whose job it is to figure out the appropriate sentence, and puts it in the hands of prosecutors," Engleberg explains.

According to Mercedes Montagnes, Executive Director at the Promise of Justice Initiative, the Habitual Offender Statute is one of the reasons Louisiana is the incarceration capital of the world.

"These extremely long and excessive sentences, you’re not really able to challenge them once you receive them and so we have a disproportionate number of people serving life without parole and a disproportionate number of people in prison," says Montagnes.

The Louisiana Supreme Court heard arguments to determine if Harris should get a new sentencing hearing.

Harris’s attorneys argued that he did not get adequate counsel from his court-appointed lawyer, who failed to appeal the excessive sentence. They say Harris committed minor crimes because of drug addiction and mental health problems resulting from combat in the Gulf War.

The prosecution asked the high court to uphold Harris’s life sentence because it is mandated under the Habitual Offender Statute.

Copyright 2021 WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio. To see more, visit WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio.

Betsy Shepherd covers environmental news and is producing a podcast on the Civil Rights Movement in small-town Louisiana. She won a regional Edward R. Murrow award for a feature she reported on Louisiana’s 2016 floods.