The Mississippi Supreme Court last week upheld the conviction of a man sentenced to life in prison for cannabis possession, WLBT reports. The court found that Allen Russell’s life sentence – handed down in 2019 for possession of 43.71 grams, or less than two ounces – did not violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which bars excessive bail, fines, and cruel or unusual punishment, and was in line with state law.
The conviction would typically carry a sentence of up to three years in prison but Russell was given the enhanced sentence under the state’s habitual offender law. Russell had been previously charged with house burglary twice and being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm.
The Mississippi Court of Appeals had previously deadlocked on Russell’s case 5-5 last year, the report says. In a split decision, six of the nine Supreme Court justices affirmed the trial court’s ruling, finding that Russell received “the only sentence available.” The court added that Russell had a history of being a violent offender.
In the majority opinion, Associate Justice Robert Chamberlin, wrote 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.
“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.” — Chamberlin, in the opinion, via WLBT
In the dissent, Associate Justice Josiah Coleman said that burglary was not a “per se crime of violence until Mississippi Code… made it so as a matter of law on July 1, 2014.”
“Prior to July 1, 2014, burglary was only considered a crime of violence if actual violence took place during the burglary,” Coleman wrote in the minority 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.”
“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,” Coleman wrote. “In so doing, the majority leaves Russell in prison for the rest of his life.”