Military Veteran Serving Life In Louisiana Prison For A $30 Marijuana Charge Is Being Freed

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Written by Dana Sanchez
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Derek Harris, a Gulf War veteran serving a life sentence for a $30 marijuana sale, is being freed in Louisiana. The state has more prisoners serving life without parole than Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas combined. Most are African Americans. Image: KATC/CNN video

Derek Harris, a military veteran who has been serving life in prison for a $30 marijuana sale in 2008, is being released from a notorious Louisiana prison.

Louisiana prosecutors agreed earlier this week to release Harris from Angola, the largest maximum-security prison in the U.S. He served nine years in prison, KATC/CNN reported from Abbeville.

“We’ve held onto the faith that, you know, someday that things would be right,” said Antoine Harris, who hasn’t seen his younger brother Derek for almost 10 years.

Louisiana’s prison population includes almost 4,700 “lifers” — those serving life without parole. That’s more than Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas combined, according to the Sentencing Project. African Americans make up 32 percent of Louisiana’s population but account for 73.4 percent of all lifers in Louisiana, Washington Post reported.

Experts blame draconian sentencing standards and ineffective counsel for the large number of prisoners serving life without parole. “And unlike most states, Louisiana prohibits inmates from challenging their convictions on either of those grounds, permanently cementing their status,” WP reported

Derek Harris was arrested in 2008 in for selling 0.69 grams of marijuana to an undercover police officer in Abbeville, La. Initially, Derek was sentenced to 15 years but was he was resentenced in 2012 under the Habitual Offender Law to life in state prison without parole, CNN reported.

A 1991 Gulf War veteran, Harris had a substance abuse problem that started when he returned from Operation Desert Storm. The U.S. military operation, Desert Storm was launched in 1991 by President George H. W. Bush in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

“His attorney at the time was just silent, never once appealed it or said I don’t agree with it or anything,” Antoine said. “He was virtually just quiet, so his counsel was ineffective.”

The Louisiana Supreme Court granted Derek a new hearing in July, and his legal team argued that his first attorney failed him by not challenging the sentence.

The court agreed that Harris had “ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing on post-conviction review.” The District Attorney’s office in Vermilion Parish agreed that Derek was entitled to a lesser sentence, his attorney, Cormac Boyle, said in a statement.

Derek Harris had previous offenses included theft and dealing cocaine, but no record of violent crime.

“His prior offenses were nonviolent and related to his untreated dependency on drugs,” Louisiana Supreme Court Justice John Weimer wrote in his opinion.

Harris plans to move to Kentucky to be closer to his brother and his family, according to The Promise of Justice Initiative, which represents Harris.

“Did he deserve the rest of his life in prison because of something other
people get maybe a slap on the wrist for? I’d say we have a long way to go with the justice system,” Antoine Harris said, according to KATC/ABC.

Derek Harris is asking the court to reinstate the ability of inmates to contest their sentences on the grounds that they are excessive and the result of inadequate legal representation, WP reported. A life sentence in Louisiana used to carry parole eligibility after 10 years and six months until 1972, when the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty. Legislators reacted by pushing back eligibility to 20 years, then 40 years until abolishing it altogether in 1979.

Derek’s case is part of a larger movement in Louisiana and across the U.S. to reconsider the use of life without parole. Critics say it has been used disproportionately against Black people, juveniles and those convicted of nonviolent offenses.

Sheriffs, tough-on-crime politicians and prosecutors “take pride in the state‚Äôs high number of people serving life without parole, boasting that in Louisiana, ‘life means life,'” Richard A. Webster reported for WP.

Derek Harris is still in shock about his change in fortune, his brother said. “We’ve been working at this for a long time trying to obtain his freedom and now finally it’s here,” Antoine said. “It’s a bit overwhelming for him as well as us.”

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