Louisiana Supreme Court to hear arguments against life sentence over $30 weed sale

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The Louisiana Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on behalf of a military veteran sentenced to life in prison for selling $30 of weed.

Derek Harris sold handed an undercover law enforcement officer who knocked on his Abbeville, La. door in 2008 exactly 0.69 grams of cannabis. Thanks to the efforts of a zealous Vermilion Parish prosecutor and Louisiana’s habitual-offender law, the transaction landed Harris a life sentence in prison with no chance of parole.

Harris’ previous breaches of the law enforcement dated back to almost 30 years ago, when he was convicted for selling cocaine in 1991. He was later convicted of simple robbery in 1993, again in 1994, and on a charge of theft under $500 in 2005.

After his 2008 pot bust, Judge Durwood Conque of the  15th Judicial District in Louisiana stated that he was obligated to apply the life sentence after prosecutors invoked Harris’ history. Judge Conque stated in court that he felt a 30-year sentence was excessive and sentenced Harris to 15 years, but when prosecutors invoked the habitual-offender law, citing Harris’ criminal record, the judge said he had no recourse.

“I agree that you’re not what we would think of as a drug dealer, so far as I can tell,” the judge told Harris during sentencing. “But you are a four-time felon, and that presents problems that I can’t overcome for you, no matter how much I would want to,” the judge added.

But it is alleged the veteran’s trial attorney erred in skipping important legal steps, including seeking a lesser charge and keeping the case open for appeal.

This week, the court is scheduled to hear oral arguments as to whether or not it’s too late for Harris to appeal on the argument that his lawyer mishandled his case and sentencing. Harris’ legal team will ask the Supreme Court to strike down a decision in which the court issued a blanket rule that a defendant cannot challenge a sentence as excessive once their appeals have run out.

Judge Sylvia Cooks, one of the three 3rd Circuit Louisiana Court of Appeals judges that rejected Harris’ earlier appeal, provided a scathing dissent of the decision. Judge Cooks referred to Harris’ life sentence as “shocking to my conscience” and cited his service in Operation Desert Storm and subsequent drug addiction.

“It is clear from the record that this trial judge did not know that he could” sentence Harris to a shorter sentence than life, believing that “he was, indeed, duty-bound to do so,” Judge Cooks wrote.

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