Derek Harris walks free after life without parole sentence reduced, in landmark Louisiana case

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ABBEVILLE, LA – On Thursday, The Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI) client Derek Harris was re-sentenced from life without parole to 9 years.

Mr. Harris was originally convicted of selling $30 worth of marijuana (.69 grams), yet he was sentenced to life without parole under Louisiana’s extraordinarily harsh Habitual Offender Law.

Although Mr. Harris did have prior convictions, he had “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,” Justice Weimer noted in the decision. This law has been routinely misused to justify numerous other extreme and unjust sentences throughout the state.

Earlier this year PJI attorney, Cormac Boyle, argued before the Louisiana Supreme Court that the errors committed by Mr. Harris’ trial counsel made his sentence unconstitutional. In early June, the Court agreed that due process, or fair treatment under the law, requires such a review. In July, the Court agreed and referred the matter back to the district court. Prior to PJI’s victory, people like Mr. Harris had no meaningful opportunity to argue that their sentence was extreme or their lawyer was incompetent if they had already been convicted.

In front of the district court, the District Attorney’s office agreed that Mr. Harris received ineffective assistance at sentencing and was entitled to a lesser sentence.

Mr. Harris and the District Attorney agreed, and Judge Laurie Hulin accepted, that the nine year sentence—which Mr. Harris has already served—would be appropriate under the circumstances.

Mr. Harris’ resentencing gives hope to many others around the state who have unjustly suffered under the habitual offender law, and will now be able to challenge their sentences post-conviction.

We are grateful to Judge Hulin, District Attorney Calvin “Woody” Woodruff, and District
Attorney Keith Stutes for helping to see justice served today. We are also grateful for the tireless work of PJI staff members, including Mr. Boyle and Elise Gonzalez, and for the love and constant support of Mr. Harris’ entire family.

Upon release, Mr. Harris plans to move to Louisville, Kentucky to spend time with his brother,
Antoine, and his family. He is eager to watch his nephews play sports and to build a life for himself
there.

Since being incarcerated Mr. Harris and his family lost their dear mother, Stella Harris.
While she is not here today to see this result, Mr. Harris has always felt her spirit watching over
all of us throughout this arduous process.

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