As states across the U.S. continue to shape their legal cannabis markets, with restorative justice and the need for clemency for cannabis offenses still on the lips of legislators, one man sentenced to life in prison on a cannabis possession charge recently lost his appeal in Mississippi’s highest court.
In 2019, Russell received a life sentence without parole after he was found guilty of possession of 43.71 grams of cannabis. This conviction typically carried a sentence of up to three years, but Russell received an enhanced sentence of life because of Mississippi’s habitual offender rules. Russell was previously convicted of two separate charges of house burglary and one charge of firearm possession as a convicted felon.
Because of his previous record, Mississippi Code required the judge to give Russell a life sentence. Russell refuted the sentence, saying that it violated his Eighth Amendment right, ensuring freedom from “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Last year, Sussell appealed the sentence to the Mississippi Court of Appeals, which voted an even 5-5 split on the ruling. With the split decision, six justices affirmed the trial court’s ruling and said Russell’s life sentence was the only one available. The high court also stated that Russell had a history of being a violent offender.
Russell cited that the court has previously appealed other life sentences for habitual offenders. One example is Solem v. Helm—Jerry Helm had previously been convicted of six nonviolent felonies, committing a form of check fraud with a “no account” check. South Dakota law deemed that the crime would have carried up to five years in prison and a fine of $5,000, but Helm got the maximum sentence of life as a habitual offender.
The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately upheld an appeals court decision, saying the punishment was prohibited under the Eighth Amendment.
Life Sentence for Cannabis Justified By the Court
Though, justices say Russell’s case doesn’t compare to Solem — they say Helm was involved in nonviolent offenses, while Russell was a violent offender.
Citing Russell’s last arrest, justices said it’s important to note that the arrest came while law enforcement attempted to serve another drug-related warrant on Russell, in addition to executing a search warrant on his premises.
“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,” justices wrote.
On the contrary, the dissenting justices say that burglary wasn’t considered a “per se crime of violence until Mississippi Code […] made it so as a matter of law on July 1, 2014.” They also questioned whether Russell had a violent criminal history at all.
Citing the Mississippi Code regarding burglary, the dissenting justices noted that burglary was only considered a crime prior to July 1, 2014 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 dissenting justices wrote.
Prior to it being dissolved, the Mississippi RID program was open to nonviolent offenders, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s website.
Russell was convicted for about 1.54 ounces, which is within the legal limits of Mississippi’s medical cannabis statute. The dissenting justice also pointed to the fact that Mississippi has
“Pursuant to the bill creating the program, the difference going forward between going to jail for possessing 2.5 ounces of marijuana and owning it legally would be a prescription,” they wrote.
In the majority opinion, justices nodded to the dissenters’ assessment of “changing trends” toward the criminality of cannabis and say the legislature could and should recognize those changing attitudes when creating sentencing laws.
Associate Justice Josiah Coleman, author of the dissenting opinion along with Justices James Kitchens and Leslie King, said the court should grant Russell relief.
“The majority undertakes the task of offering procedural guidance to courts faced with defendants in the same position as that in which Russell finds himself, yet it denies Russell himself the benefit of its guidance,” he wrote. “In so doing, the majority leaves Russell in prison for the rest of his life.”