A Black veteran who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for selling $30 worth of marijuana has been set free after a nearly a decade behind bars.
Derek Harris was released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary after his sentence was reduced to 9 years, which he has already served, according to a news release statement the nonprofit Promise of Justice Initiative.
Harris’ attorney, Cormac Boyle, said his release is just to first step in helping him start his new life. Although Harris worked in the prison’s hospital for years, he will leave prison with no job and in need of help for medications and other basic necessities.
“Supporting Derek did not end with overturning his egregious life sentence and it did not end the day he walked out of Angola,” Boyle said in a statement. “Righting the harms done to a person through incarceration includes supporting their health, housing, and adjustment to their long-deserved freedom we need all the help we can get.”
Harris’ release comes as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread at prisons across the country and families of prisoners and inmate advocates continue to push for their release.
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“This delayed justice was a terrifying ordeal for Derek and his family,” the nonprofit’s executive director, Mercedes Montagnes said in the release. “As COVID-19 rates continue to rise in DOC facilities, every day spent in Angola was a tremendous risk for Derek’s health and safety.”
Harris was convicted after selling less than a gram of marijuana to an undercover agent in 2008, according to court documents. He had prior nonviolent convictions for theft and drug-related offenses, records showed.
At Harris’ initial trial in 2012, he was sentenced to 15 years in jail instead of the 30-year maximum. But Vermilion Parish prosecutors invoked Louisiana’s habitual offender law, and Harris was re-sentenced to life in prison.
The Louisiana Supreme Court granted Harris a new hearing last month, and his legal team argued that his first attorney failed him by not challenging the sentence. The district attorney’s office agreed that Harris received ineffective assistance of counsel, according to Boyle.
Boyle said Harris would move to be near family in Kentucky.
The attorney added that it was time to rethink how Louisiana uses its habitual offender law, arguing it disproportionately affects Black defendants. More than 91% of the nonviolent life without parole prison population in Louisiana is Black, according to a 2013 study from the American Civil Liberties Union.
“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 told the Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate earlier this month.
Contributing: The Associated Press
Follow N’dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg
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