The Mississippi Supreme Court voted last week to uphold a life sentence without the possibility of parole for a man who was convicted of possessing less than three ounces of weed. The court voted 6-3 to confirm the penalty for the defendant, Allen Russell, who was sentenced under Mississippi’s habitual offender statute.
“Because the trial judge followed the law to the letter, we affirm,” Justice Robert P. Chamberlin wrote in the majority opinion quoted by the Epoch Times. “The trial judge did not have sentencing discretion in this case.”
Russell was arrested in 2017 for possessing five bags of cannabis weighing a combined total of 79.5 grams (just over 2.5 ounces) that police discovered while executing a search warrant. Lab analysis of two of the bags determined they contained 43.71 grams (about 1.54 ounces) of cannabis, and Russell was indicted on one charge of possessing more than 30 grams but less than 250 grams of cannabis.
Normally, a conviction on such a charge would carry a sentence of up to three years in prison. But Russell was also charged with being a violent habitual offender, subjecting him to a mandatory life sentence without parole upon conviction.
Sentenced Under Mississippi Habitual Offender Law
During his trial, prosecutors presented evidence that Russell had three prior felony convictions, two for burglary and one for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Under Mississippi state law, a burglary is considered a violent offense, even if no evidence of actual violence against a person is presented in a case.
Russell had pleaded guilty to the burglary charges in 2004 and was given two concurrent 15-year sentences. He spent a little more than 8.5 years in prison and was released in 2014, the same year that Mississippi law was changed to classify burglary as a violent crime, even if no evidence of violence is presented in court.
A jury found Russell guilty of the possession charge in 2019 and the court found that he was a violent habitual offender under the law, sentencing him to life behind bars. Russell then sued to overturn the sentence, arguing it violated his right to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and his constitutional right not to be subjected to ex post facto laws.
Chief Justice Michael Randolph wrote in a separate concurring opinion that Russell’s life sentence was not solely for cannabis possession and that he had been treated leniently by the courts in previous criminal cases, noting that the defendant “is no stranger to the criminal justice system.”
“Russell has received a harsh punishment not because he possessed a small amount of marijuana, but because he has repeatedly refused to abide by the laws enacted to protect all the citizens of our state,” Randolph wrote.
The chief justice added that it is “pertinent to note that the arrest came while law enforcement was attempting to serve another drug-related warrant on Russell as well as execute a search warrant on his premises.”
Justice Josiah Coleman wrote in a dissenting opinion that Russell has been poorly treated by the courts. He noted that there is uncertainty regarding Russell’s criminal history, writing that “burglary was not considered a per se crime of violence until” state law was changed in 2014. The defendant “pled guilty to two counts of burglary in 2004,” 10 years after the change. But “burglary was only considered a crime of violence if actual violence took place during the burglary” before the law was changed. The dissenting judges questioned if Russell actually had a violent criminal history.
“Prior to July 1, 2014, burglary was only considered a crime of violence if actual violence took place during the burglary,” reads the dissenting opinion. “We do not know whether Russell’s burglaries involved actual violence, but the fact that he was allowed the opportunity by the sentencing court to participate in the Regimented Inmate Discipline Program tends to indicate they did not.”
Appeals Court Confirmed Sentence Last Year
Last year, an appeals court voted 5-5 in Russell’s case, with the tie vote not enough to overturn the sentence. In an opinion upholding the penalty, the judges wrote that the sentence is in accordance with state law. But several dissenting judges wrote that courts can and should make exceptions when warranted.
“The purpose of the criminal justice system is to punish those who break the law, deter them from making similar mistakes, and give them the opportunity to become productive members of society,” appeals court Judge Latrice Westbrooks wrote in the 2021 dissenting opinion. “The fact that judges are not routinely given the ability to exercise discretion in sentencing all habitual offenders is completely at odds with this goal.”
The case was then appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which upheld the sentence in last week’s decision.
A petition on Change.org organized by the group Check Your Privilege is calling on Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves to commute Russell’s life sentence. As of Tuesday, the petition had garnered more than 100,000 signatures.
“There is no amount of cannabis that should land someone a life sentence,” reads the petition. “Allen Russel was found guilty of possession in 2019 over just an ounce of weed, meanwhile laws around recreational use are softening all across the US.”
Mason Tvert, a longtime cannabis activist and partner at cannabis policy firm VS Strategies, criticized the sentence, suggesting it should be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It is tragically ironic that this man’s life is being taken away from him for possessing a substance which, used alone, has never taken a life,” Tvert wrote in an email to High Times. “This case certainly warrants further review and ought to be reversed.”