He was a military veteran, busted for selling a mere .69 grams of marijuana. For that, Derek Harris has served nearly a decade behind bars. But now, after the Louisiana Supreme Court granted him a new hearing, Harris is set to be freed.
Harris’ time in prison began back in 2008, when he was arrested after selling a Louisiana police officer an amount of pot valued at less than $30. According to CNN, Harris was initially “Harris..convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison,” and then later “resentenced in 2012 to life in prison under the Habitual Offender Law, which allows judges to impose stricter sentences on someone who’s been charged before.”
CNN reported that Harris’s attorney, Cormac Boyle, said that prosecutors in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana agreed to release his client “after the Louisiana Supreme Court granted him a new hearing last month.”
“The Louisiana Supreme Court agreed with Harris’ argument claiming he had ‘ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing on post-conviction review,’” CNN reported. “The matter was sent back to the trial court for an evidentiary writ.” Boyle said in a statement, as reported by CNN that the local District Attorney’s office concurred that Harris had “received ineffective assistance at sentencing and was entitled to a lesser sentence.” Boyle additionally “noted that Harris had a substance abuse problem that started when he returned from Desert Storm, a US military operation during the Gulf War launched in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990,” according to CNN.
Harris’s brother, Antoine Harris, told local news outlet KATC that he has not seen his younger brother in nearly a decade.
“We’ve held onto the faith that, you know, someday that things would be right,” said Antoine Harris, as quoted by the station. “His attorney at the time was just silent, never once appealed it or said I don’t agree with it or anything. He was virtually just quiet, so his counsel was ineffective. And the Supreme Court ruled that he did have ineffective counsel.”
In the decision, Louisiana Supreme Court Justice John Weimer noted that Derek Harris’s “prior offenses were nonviolent and related to his untreated dependency on drugs,” according to CNN
Weimer additionally pointed out “that the trial judge said that Harris was ‘not a drug kingpin’ and didn’t fit what they thought of ‘as a drug dealer, so far as I can tell.’” CNN reported
The state’s Supreme Court has given Harris a new hearing slated for September, KATC reported, “and his legal team argued that his first attorney failed him by not challenging the sentence.”
Louisiana and Medical Cannabis
While Louisiana continues to enforce punitive laws against recreational marijuana use, the state has expanded its medical cannabis program. Earlier this summer, Governor John Bel Edwards signed a measure into law that opens the door for any patient with a debilitating condition to potentially be eligible for medical marijuana treatment.
The bill was sponsored by state House Rep. Larry Bagley, chairman of the House Health Committee, a Republican.
“It’s legal now,” Bagley said at the time. “There’s no reason to restrict access and this was just to be sure that everybody could get it.”