The state’s highest court has dismissed an appeal by a man condemned to life in prison for marijuana possession. The Mississippi Supreme Court determined on Thursday that Allen Russell’s life sentence did not violate the Eighth Amendment and was legal under state law.
Russell was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release in 2019 after being found guilty of possessing 43.71 grams of marijuana. Russell was handed the enhanced punishment of life under the state’s chronic offender guidelines, which would have entailed a three-year sentence in most cases.
Previously, the defendant had been convicted of two counts of house burglary and one count of being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm. Russell’s conviction prompted the judge to sentence him to life in prison under Mississippi law.
Russell, on the other hand, claimed that the sentence was in violation of his Eighth Amendment right to be free of “cruel and unusual punishment.” He took his case to the Mississippi Court of Appeals, which was split 5-5 in a decision last year. As a result, the Supreme Court consented to consider the case.
Six justices, in a divided judgment, upheld the trial court’s verdict, saying Russell received “the only penalty available.”
“We affirm because the trial judge followed the law to the letter.”
Russell has a history of being a violent offender, according to the high court.
Russell, on the other hand, claims that courts have overturned life sentences for repeat offenders, citing the case of Solem v. Helm as an example.
Jerry Helm, who had previously been convicted of six nonviolent offenses, engaged in check fraud by drafting a “no account” check in that case. Under South Dakota law, the crime could have resulted in up to five years in jail and a $5,000 fine in the state where it occurred. Helm, on the other hand, received the maximum penalty of life in prison since he was a repeat criminal.
The Supreme Court of the United States upheld an appeals court finding that the punishment was illegal under the Eighth Amendment.
Russell’s case, according to local courts, pales in comparison to Solem’s. Helm was involved in non-violent offenses, but Russell was a violent offender, according to the majority decision.
“It is crucial to note that the arrest occurred while law enforcement was attempting to serve another drug-related warrant on Russell as well as execute a search warrant on his properties,” the judges noted. “To get Russell to surrender, chemical gas had to be used.”
“Clearly, the trial judge was aware of Russell’s past as it was recorded in the record and, as a result, he weighed ‘all circumstances relevant to’ the sentence that was imposed.”
Associate Justice Robert Chamberlin wrote the majority judgment, with Justices James Maxwell, Dawn Beam, David Ishee, and Kenny Griffis concurring.
Chief Justice Michael Randolph, who was joined by Beam and Ishee and joined in part by Maxwell and Chamberlin, affirmed the trial court’s decision in a separate written opinion.
The dissenting opinion was written by Associate Justice Josiah Coleman, who was joined by Justices James Kitchens and Leslie King.
According to the dissenting judges, burglary was not constituted a “per se crime of violence” until July 1, 2014, when the Mississippi Code… rendered it so as a matter of law.
They also dispute if Russell had a history of violent crime.
“Before July 1, 2014, a burglary was only deemed a violent crime if there was real violence during the burglary. We don’t know if Russell’s burglaries entailed actual violence, but the fact that he was allowed to participate in the Regimented Inmate Discipline Program by the sentencing court suggests they didn’t.”
According to the US Department of Justice’s website, the Mississippi RID program was open to nonviolent criminals before it was terminated.
On both sides, the justices discussed how attitudes about marijuana are changing.
The fact that the state just authorized medical marijuana was cited by the judges in their dissent.
They added, “Mississippi joined several of its sister states in implementing a medicinal marijuana program.” “According to the bill that established the program, the only difference between going to jail for possessing 2.5 ounces of marijuana and possessing it legally in the future would be a prescription.”
The majority ruling agreed with the dissenters’ assessment of “changing views toward the illegality of marijuana” and stated that the government could and should take such changing sentiments into consideration when drafting sentencing rules.
Russell was found guilty of possessing around 1.54 ounces of marijuana, which was far under the state’s medical marijuana statute’s permitted limitations.
In his dissent, Coleman argues that the court should award Russell the remedy he seeks. “The majority takes on the work of providing procedural direction to courts dealing with defendants in similar situations to Russell’s, but it denies Russell the benefit of that guidance,” he said. “By doing so, the majority has sentenced Russell to life in jail.”