July 9, 2020
New Orleans, La. —Today, in a landmark decision, the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed long standing legal barriers that prohibited challenges to excessive or unjust sentencing. Derek Harris was represented in his challenge to Louisiana’s draconian sentencing system by the Promise of Justice Initiative. Mr. Harris had been sentenced to life without parole for the sale of .69 grams of marijuana for 30 dollars, despite evidence that he, as noted by Justice Weimer, “developed a substance abuse problem after returning from his honorable military service in Desert Storm, and his prior offenses were nonviolent and related to his untreated dependency on drugs.” With this ruling, the Louisiana Supreme Court held that fundamental fairness requires the lower courts to hear Mr. Harris’ legal claims that his sentence was excessive.
Justice Crichton observed that the legal precedent for denying Mr. Harris claim was “egregiously wrong when it was decided” and that the “consequences have been significant and negative leaving defendants like this one with no real remedy.” The Court noted that the Promise of Justice Initiative enrolled on behalf of Mr. Harris pro bono. He was represented by Cormac Boyle at the Louisiana Supreme Court, who briefed and argued the case, alongside Kristin Wenstrom, who appeared on behalf of the Louisiana Public Defender Board.
This result would not have been possible without the support and collaboration of so many, including the Louisiana Public Defender Board and the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, who filed amicus briefs, inmate counsel who assisted Mr. Harris in filing his pro se applications to the Court of Appeal and the Louisiana Supreme Court, and Mr. Harris’ many loved ones.
Louisiana leads the nation in incarceration, and sentences more people to life without parole per capita than any other state. The decision by the Louisiana Supreme Court today recognizes that the constitution’s promises cannot be extinguished, that the courts must be open to hear these important sentencing claims.
Mr. Boyle observed, “It is the ability to recognize our mistakes, and learn from them, that makes our system stronger and more just for all. The opinion rightly recognizes that the Louisiana courts made a mistake in foreclosing from review an entire class of important constitutional claims, and that there must be an opportunity for a person to challenge their unconstitutional sentence in state post-conviction.”
Cormac Boyle, Staff Attorney
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