High court upholds life sentence for Forrest Co. man convicted of marijuana possession

Russell was sentenced to life in prison on a marijuana charge, due to the state's habitual...
Russell was sentenced to life in prison on a marijuana charge, due to the state's habitual offender laws.(MDOC)
Published: Jun. 16, 2022 at 5:33 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A man sentenced to life in prison on a marijuana possession charge has lost his appeal in the state’s highest court.

Thursday, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that Allen Russell’s life sentence was not a violation of the Eighth Amendment and was in line with state statute.

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

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.

The defendant had previously been convicted of two separate charges of house burglary and one charge of being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm.

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

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 agreed to hear the case as a result.

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

“Because the trial judge followed the law to the letter, we affirm.”

The high court goes on to state that Russell had a history of being a violent offender.

Russell, though, said the courts have tossed out life sentences for habitual offenders, including in Solem v. Helm.

In that case, Jerry Helm, who had previously been convicted of six nonviolent felonies, committed a form of check fraud, writing a “no account” check. Under South Dakota law, in the state where the crime occurred, the crime would have carried up to five years in prison and a fine of $5,000. However, because Helm was a habitual offender, he too, got the maximum sentence of life.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld an appeals court decision saying that the punishment was prohibited under the Eighth Amendment.

Locally, justices say Russell’s case can’t compare to Solem. In their majority opinion, they point to the fact that Helm was involved in non-violent offenses, while Russell was a violent offender.

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.”

The majority opinion was written by Associate Justice Robert Chamberlin, with Justices James Maxwell, Dawn Beam, David Ishee, and Kenny Griffis concurring.

Chief Justice Michael Randolph also affirmed the trial court’s decision, but wrote a separate written opinion, joined by Beam and Ishee, and joined in part by Maxwell and Chamberlin.

Associate Justice Josiah Coleman wrote the dissenting opinion and was joined by Justices James Kitchens and Leslie King.

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.

Justices on both sides also touched on changing attitudes toward marijuana.

In their dissent, justices pointed to the fact that the state recently legalized medical marijuana.

“Mississippi joined many of its sister states in adopting a medical marijuana program,” they wrote. “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.”

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.

[Gov. Tate Reeves signs medical marijuana law.]

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

Coleman, in writing the dissent, said the court should grant Russell the relief he is seeking. “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.”

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