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An Abbeville man who was serving a life prison sentence as a habitual offender over a $30 marijuana sale is getting out.
Prosecutors in Vermilion Parish on Thursday agreed to cut Derek Harris loose after nine years, following a decision last month by the Louisiana Supreme Court to grant him a new hearing over his sentence.
Cormac Boyle, an attorney with the Promise of Justice Initiative who represents Harris, said 15th Judicial District Attorney Keith Stutes’ office agreed that Harris had received ineffective assistance of counsel at his sentencing hearing.
Harris claimed his attorney failed him by staying silent when a judge said he had no choice but to hand Harris a life prison term as a habitual offender, after his conviction for the sale of less than a gram of marijuana to an undercover agent who came to Harris’ door in 2008.
At Harris’ initial sentencing, 15th Judicial District Judge Durwood Conque said he didn’t think a 30-year maximum sentence was warranted for selling marijuana; he opted for 15 years instead. But after Vermilion Parish prosecutors invoked the state’s habitual-offender law, Conque sentenced Harris to life, saying he had no choice.
Harris’ prior convictions dated back to a 1991 conviction for dealing cocaine, according to court filings. He was later convicted of simple robbery in 1992 and 1993, simple burglary in 1997, theft under $500 in 2005 and distribution of marijuana.
Harris claimed his attorney failed to remind Conque of his obligation to deliver a lower prison term to a defendant if he found the mandatory minimum sentence “shocks the conscience.” In granting Harris a new hearing, the Supreme Court parted from a rule laid out in 1996 that convicts couldn’t challenge their sentences in such “post-conviction” proceedings.
All but one justice — Will Crain — agreed it would violate Harris’ right to due process not to grant him a proper hearing before a district court judge on his claim.
The ruling left in jeopardy the state law that bars similar late challenges based on sentencing. But for Harris, it will spell freedom.
Conque has retired. A different jurist, District Judge Laurie Hulin, endorsed the new sentence, which equates to the time Harris already has served behind bars.
In a statement Thursday, Boyle argued that Harris’ case is not an anomaly and points to long-standing problems with the state’s habitual offender law, including a disproportionate impact on Black defendants.
“It is certainly time for Louisiana to rethink how it uses the habitual offender law,” Boyle said. “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.”
Boyle, who represented Harris along with attorney Kristin Wenstrom, said late Thursday that Harris was in the process of being released from state prison and would head for Kentucky to live near a brother and his family.