Tulane Law School hosts Supreme Court hearing on life sentence for 0.04 oz marijuana distribution

Courtesy+of+Infrogmation

Courtesy of Infrogmation

Amy Nankin, News Editor

The first oral hearing of the case of the State of Louisiana versus Derek Harris was held at Tulane University Law School Monday. Attorney Cormac Boyle and District Attorney Dale Lee presented oral statements arguing Harris’ case in front of the Louisiana supreme court justices, law students, friends and family. 

Harris, a war veteran, unknowingly sold less than 1 gram (0.04 ounces) of marijuana to an undercover cop in 2008. A warrant was issued for Harris’ arrest four months after his offense and in 2009, the District Attorney’s Office for Louisiana’s 15th Judicial District charged Harris with marijuana distribution. Harris posted bond and awaited trial for three years, electing for a trial by judge and was ultimately found guilty. His sentence was 15 years in prison. 

Following the trial, prosecutors with the district attorney’s office filed a habitual offender bill, a Louisiana statute allowing prosecutors to enhance a punishment based off a person’s criminal history, and on Nov. 15, 2012, Harris’ sentence was increased to a life without parole.  

In 2017, Louisiana enacted a new state reform allowing habitual offenders, like Harris, who were excessively charged on their fourth offense, to challenge their sentencing. Harris had previously been charged with possession of cocaine, simple robbery and theft of property worth less than $500. His family, friends and attorney Boyle argue that his offenses were in part due to an untreated substance use disorder he developed while serving in the Army during the Gulf War in the early 1990s. 

Boyle argued that in addition to a lack of attention on his substance abuse, Harris was given ineffective counsel in his post-conviction case. Boyle pointed to a number of court cases that would support Harris in arguing the excessiveness that Harris’ post-conviction attorney failed to address. Among other examples of ineffective counsel, the brief cited the district appointed attorneys failure to let Harris know about a possible plea deal that would have resulted in a 7-year sentence. 

“Courts have a duty to make sure the punishment fits the crime and that didn’t happen here,” Boyle said. 

Lee, however, argued that to change Harris’ sentence would open the flood gates to a review of all habitual offenders sentences. Lee also argued the ruling had already been deemed constitutional and fair by the judge who originally issued the sentencing. 

The Louisiana Supreme Court justices, especially Chief Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson, questioned both sides and provided insight to the law student onlookers concerning the nuances of the case. The high courts decision will not come until much later, but hearings will continue on accordingly.