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Mississippi Supreme Court Upholds Life Sentence for Weed Possession

Mississippi’s Supreme Court last week voted to confirm a life sentence with no parole possibility for a man convicted in Mississippi of possession of less than 3 ounces of marijuana. The court voted 6-3 to confirm the penalty for the defendant, Allen Russell, who was sentenced under Mississippi’s habitual offender statute.

“Because the trial judge followed the law to the letter, we affirm,” Justice Robert P. Chamberlin wrote in the majority opinion quoted by the Epoch Times. “The trial judge did not have sentencing discretion in this case.”

Russell was indicted for five cannabis bags weighing 79.5 grams each (just more than 2.5 ounces) which he had been found with while police were executing a warrant. Two bags contained 43.71g (roughly 1.54 ounces) each of cannabis. Russell was arrested on the charge of possessing over 30 grams, but less than 250 grams.

Normally, such charges would result in a three-year sentence. Russell was also convicted of being a violent Habitual Offender. This sentence imposes a lifetime term without parole.

Mississippi Habitual Offender law sentencing

Prosecutors presented evidence during Russell’s trial that Russell was convicted of three felonies, one each for burglary, and another for possessing a firearm by an indicted felon. Mississippi’s state law makes burglary a serious offense even though no evidence is provided of any actual violence.

Russell had previously pleaded guilty in 2004 to burglary charges and received two consecutive 15 year sentences. After spending a little over eight years in prison, he was finally released the following year. In 2014 Mississippi laws were changed to include burglary as an violent crime.

In 2019, a jury found Russell guilty on the possession charge. The court also found Russell a violent habitual offenders under the law and sentenced him to life in prison. Russell sued to overturn his sentence, saying that he was not entitled to cruel and unusual punishments under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S Constitution.

Chief Justice Michael Randolph wrote in a separate concurring opinion that Russell’s life sentence was not solely for cannabis possession and that he had been treated leniently by the courts in previous criminal cases, noting that the defendant “is no stranger to the criminal justice system.”

“Russell has received a harsh punishment not because he possessed a small amount of marijuana, but because he has repeatedly refused to abide by the laws enacted to protect all the citizens of our state,” Randolph wrote.

The chief justice added that it is “pertinent to note that the arrest came while law enforcement was attempting to serve another drug-related warrant on Russell as well as execute a search warrant on his premises.”

Justice Josiah Coleman made a dissident opinion stating that Russell had been treated poorly by the courts. He noted that there is uncertainty regarding Russell’s criminal history, writing that “burglary was not considered a per se crime of violence until” state law was changed in 2014. The defendant “pled guilty to two counts of burglary in 2004,” 10 years after the change. But “burglary was only considered a crime of violence if actual violence took place during the burglary” before the law was changed. Russell had an alleged violent criminal past, but the judges disagreed.

“Prior to July 1, 2014, burglary was only considered a crime of violence if actual violence took place during the burglary,” reads the dissenting opinion. “We do not know whether Russell’s burglaries involved actual violence, but the fact that he was allowed the opportunity by the sentencing court to participate in the Regimented Inmate Discipline Program tends to indicate they did not.”

Sentence Confirmed by Appeals Court Last Year

Last year, an appeals court voted 5-5 in Russell’s case, with the tie vote not enough to overturn the sentence. The judges ruled that the sentence was in compliance with the state laws. However, several judges disagreed and wrote that the courts should allow for exceptions where necessary.

“The purpose of the criminal justice system is to punish those who break the law, deter them from making similar mistakes, and give them the opportunity to become productive members of society,” appeals court Judge Latrice Westbrooks wrote in the 2021 dissenting opinion. “The fact that judges are not routinely given the ability to exercise discretion in sentencing all habitual offenders is completely at odds with this goal.”

The case was then appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which upheld the sentence in last week’s decision.

A petition on organized by the group Check Your Privilege is calling on Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves to commute Russell’s life sentence. The petition has more than 100,000 signatures as of Tuesday.

“There is no amount of cannabis that should land someone a life sentence,” reads the petition. “Allen Russel was found guilty of possession in 2019 over just an ounce of weed, meanwhile laws around recreational use are softening all across the US.”

Mason Tvert was a long-standing cannabis activist, and he is a partner at VS Strategies.

“It is tragically ironic that this man’s life is being taken away from him for possessing a substance which, used alone, has never taken a life,” Tvert wrote in an email to Chronic News. “This case certainly warrants further review and ought to be reversed.”