Mississippi man imprisoned for life over marijuana possession

by Ezekiel J. Walker
Mississippi man imprisoned for life over marijuana possession
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On Thursday, Allen Russell, who was sentenced to life in prison on a marijuana possession charge, has lost his appeal in Mississippi’s highest court.

According to WLBT, the MS Supreme Court ruled that Russell’s life sentence was not a violation of the Eighth Amendment and was in line with state statute.

Russell was handed life without parole in 2019 after being found guilty of being in possession of 43.71 grams of marijuana.

Marijuana laws in America enrich some and imprison others.

The conviction typically would have carried an up to three-year sentence, but Russell was given the enhanced sentence of life under the state’s habitual offender rules. Russell had previously been convicted of two separate charges of house burglary and one charge of being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm.

Per WLBT, under Mississippi Code, the judge was required to give him a life sentence upon Russell’s conviction.

Russell, though, said the sentence violated his Eighth Amendment right, which ensures freedom from “cruel and unusual punishment.” He appealed that sentence to the Mississippi Court of Appeals, which deadlocked 5-5 on a ruling last year. The Supreme Court later agreed to hear the case.

In a split decision, six justices affirmed the trial court’s ruling, saying that Russell received “the only sentence available.”

The marijuana arrest was exacerbated by Russell’s past

Justices even provide an account of Russell’s last arrest: “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,” justices wrote. “Chemical gas had to be deployed to obtain Russell’s surrender.”

“Clearly, the trial judge was aware of Russell’s history as contained in the record and, therefore, considered ‘all matters relevant to’ the sentence which was placed before him.”

According to WLBT, the dissenting justices say that burglary was not considered a “per se crime of violence until Mississippi Code… made it so as a matter of law on July 1, 2014.”

They also question whether Russell, in fact, had a violent criminal history.

“Prior to July 1, 2014, burglary was only considered a crime of violence if actual violence took place during the burglary. 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.”

The Mississippi RID program was open to nonviolent offenders prior to it being dissolved, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s website.

Changing medical marijuana laws were considered by justices.

In their dissent, justices pointed to the fact that the state recently legalized medical marijuana. In their majority opinion, justices wrote that they agree with the dissenters’ assessment of “changing trends toward the criminality of marijuana” and say the legislature could and should take those changing attitudes into account when drawing up sentencing laws.

Russell was convicted for being in possession of about 1.54 ounces, an amount well within the current legal limits of the state’s medical marijuana statute.

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