After spending nearly a decade behind bars for selling a small amount of marijuana, Derek Harris is finally going to be free to reunite with his loved ones.
Who is Derek Harris?
Derek Harris is a military veteran who served the United States during Operation Desert Storm. According to his family, when Harris returned home from overseas, he was a different man than the one who left to fight for his country. Like many others, after his time in the Gulf War, Harris developed a substance abuse problem. His issues with drugs lead to a series of petty offenses, including theft of property under $500 and distribution of cocaine. These incidents culminated in 2008, when Harris was arrested in Louisiana for selling a police officer .69 grams of cannabis.
Initially, Harris was convicted and subsequently sentenced to 15 years in prison. However, in 2012 prosecutors argued that Harris should be resentenced under the Habitual Offenders Law. Judge Durwood Conque of Louisiana agreed and sentenced Harris to life in prison without the possibility of parole. His court-appointed Public Defender made no attempt to appeal this ruling.
“Nothing that he did deserved life without the possibility of parole,” Harris’s older brother Antoine Harris told The Appeal during a phone interview.
While incarcerated, Harris attempted to challenge the excessiveness of the decision, and argued that he had not received adequate legal representation. In 2013, the Third Circuit Court of Appeal ruled against Harris, but Judge Sylvia Cooks disagreed.
“I believe it is unconscionable to impose a life-sentence-without-benefit upon this Defendant who served his country on the field of battle and returned home to find his country offered him no help for his drug addiction problem. It is an incomprehensible, needless, tragic waste of a human life for the sake of slavish adherence to the technicalities of law.” Judge Cooks wrote.
Harris’ new attorney, Cormac Boyle, once again presented the argument that Harris received ineffective legal assistance during his post-conviction sentencing. This time, the Supreme Court of Louisiana agreed that his sentence was too harsh.
Justice Wiemer wrote that, in his opinion, Harris “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.”
Wiemer also noted that the original trial judge said of Harris that he was “not a drug kingpin” and didn’t fit what they thought of “as a drug dealer, so far as I can tell.”
A new sentence of nine years time served was handed down to Harris, though the exact date of his actual release has yet to be determined—Boyle hopes to have him freed soon.
Cormac Boyle told CNN that Harris is looking forward to being a free man, and that he plans on relocating to Louisville after his release to be closer to his family in Kentucky. He’s excited to meet his nephews. It’s been nearly a decade since Derek and his brother Antoine have seen one another in person.