A Louisiana man serving a life sentence for selling less than a gram of marijuana will be freed after his sentence was reduced to time served.
Derek Harris, an Army veteran, was sent to prison after he sold .69 grams of weed to an undercover officer who showed up on his doorstep in 2008, reported Nola.com. The drugs were reportedly worth $30. Convicted after going to trial in June 2012, Harris initially was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but a judge resentenced him to life imprisonment in November 2012 under Louisiana’s controversial Habitual Offender Law after prosecutors invoked the statute.
The law allows judges to impose stricter sentences on people with an existing criminal record. Harris’ previous convictions included simple robbery, theft under $500, simple burglary and drug offenses.
On Aug. 6, Vermilion Parish prosecutors agreed to reduce Harris’ sentence and credit him for time served, a month after the Louisiana Supreme Court granted a new hearing. Harris claimed his former lawyer did not provide effective counsel and the court agreed with his assessment. The attorney reportedly remained quiet when the sentence was handed down despite his obligation to speak up against a sentence that “shocks the conscience.”
“His attorney at the time was just silent, never once appealed it or said I don’t agree with it or anything,” Antoine Harris, Derek Harris’ brother, told WBTV. “He was virtually just quiet, so his counsel was ineffective. And the Supreme Court ruled that that he did have ineffective counsel.”
Louisiana Supreme Court Justice John Weimer noted Derek Harris did not have a criminal prior to his time in the military. He served in Operation Desert Storm, the American-led war against Iraq in 1991.
“His prior offenses were nonviolent and related to his untreated dependency on drugs,” Weimer wrote in his opinion, per CNN.
Weimer also pointed to commentary from a trial judge who stated Derek Harris was “not a drug kingpin” and did not possess the same persona “as a drug dealer, so far as I can tell.”
Harris is housed in Angola State Prison while Cormac Boyle, his attorney, is working to secure his release.
“It is certainly time for Louisiana to rethink how it uses the habitual offender law,” Boyle said in a statement. “While in theory such a law may be fine, in practice it perpetuates and exposes some of the worst aspects of the criminal justice system.”
Once he is free, Harris intends to move to Kentucky to reconnect with his family.
“Upon release, Mr. Harris plans to move to Louisville, Kentucky to spend time with his brother, Antoine, and his family,” said a press release from The Promise of Justice Initiative, the organization that employs Boyle.
“He is eager to watch his nephews play sports and to build a life for himself there,” the statement continued. “Since being incarcerated Mr. Harris and his family lost their dear mother, Stella Harris. While she is not here today to see this result, Mr. Harris has always felt her spirit watching over all of us throughout this arduous process.”
The Louisiana Supreme Court made headlines last week after it refused to hear the case of Fair Wayne Bryant, who is serving a life sentence for stealing a pair of hedge clippers. Chief Justice Bernette Johnson was the only dissenting opinion, while five white male judges voted to uphold Bryant’s conviction.