Mandatory Life: It Seemed Like Such A Good Idea At The Time
Apr. 14, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — When Roy Moore, Chief Justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court and a 10 Commandments fanatic, says this is wrong, it’s really wrong. If only Roy was as bold in not rubber stamping wrong as he is in ignoring the First Amendment. But when it comes to affirming a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole for a guy who grew his own pot, it’s not nearly as worthwhile to go out on a limb.
At his sentencing, the trial judge told Mr. Brooker that if he “could sentence you to a term that is less than life without parole, I would.” Last year, Roy Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, called Mr. Brooker’s sentence “excessive and unjustified,” and said it revealed “grave flaws” in the state’s sentencing laws, but the court still upheld the punishment.
What did 75-year-old Lee Carroll Brooker, a disabled veteran who suffered from chronic pain, do that was so horrible, so morally culpable, that he deserved the slow death penalty?
[Brooker] was arrested in July 2011 for growing three dozen marijuana plants for his own medicinal use behind his son’s house in Dothan, Ala., where he lived. For this crime, Mr. Brooker was given a life sentence with no possibility of release.
Alabama law mandates that anyone with certain prior felony convictions be sentenced to life without parole for possessing more than 1 kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of marijuana, regardless of intent to sell. Mr. Brooker had been convicted of armed robberies in Florida two decades earlier, for which he served 10 years. The marijuana plants collected at his son’s house — including unusable parts like vines and stalks — weighed 2.8 pounds.
His past crimes may be old. He may have changed his ways. But when it comes to demon weed, he must pay. So says the Alabama legislature. So says the Alabama Supreme Court.
There’s no shortage of irony in Brooker’s sentence. There’s the fact that his horrific crime, growing pot for his personal needs, is perfectly lawful elsewhere. There’s the fact that the weight of the marijuana is calculated on gross weight, rather than the weight of the smokeable pot, a legislative hat tip to enhancing the severity of the crime despite there being no rational relationship between the weight of unusable stems and the amount of demon weed involved.
But hey, marijuana is serious and dangerous stuff, which is why it’s a Schedule I narcotic, even in states where it’s legal. Don’t let that cognitive dissonance get in the way of watching Reefer Madness again.
Besides Alabama, only South Dakota, Louisiana and Mississippi have such laws; in Mississippi, possession of barely one ounce of marijuana is enough to trigger a mandatory sentence of life without parole for someone with prior convictions for certain felonies. Almost everywhere else, public attitudes and policy toward drugs in general, and marijuana in particular, have changed significantly. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, and four states, along with D.C., have fully legalized its possession for recreational use. In most states, the maximum sentence for possessing less than three pounds of marijuana is at most five years.
But so what? Who cares if this would have been totally legal elsewhere? Who cares if some other state thinks it worth no more than five years. This is Alabama, and isn’t Alabama allowed to decide for itself to give Brooker the slow death penalty for pot?
On Friday, the United States Supreme Court will consider whether to hear Mr. Brooker’s challenge to his sentence, which he argues violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments. The justices should take the case and overturn this sentence.
That the Supreme Court deemed this worthy of one of its rare grants of cert is curious, given that Roy Moore, as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, gets to use that Eighth Amendment as well. Moore thought this was wrong, “excessive and unjustified.” So why then didn’t Moore do something about it? Excessive? Unjustified? Granted, Moore didn’t use the words “cruel and unusual,” but those are still pretty strong words.
Will the Supreme Court do what Moore was too weak to do?
In 1991, the Supreme Court upheld a state law that mandated life without parole for possession of less than one and a half pounds of cocaine. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who concurred in that opinion, has since spoken out on the scourge of mandatory minimum sentences, which he said are often “unwise and unjust,” and represent a “misguided” transfer of power from judges to prosecutors.
These words suggest that the Court’s grant of cert could provide an opportunity to revisit the imposition of mandatory life imprisonment for the crime of possessing marijuana, a substance that is perfectly legal in one locale and worthy of life in prison in another.
Regardless, 75-year-old chronic pain suffering disabled veteran Lee Carroll Brooker has been put through this prosecution, the appellate process, the punishment. Even if the Supreme Court holds that Alabama’s mandatory life sentence regime is unconstitutional, it’s not like Brooker can get that time, or pain, back. And at his age, he doesn’t have that much time left that he can sacrifice it to the Moore’s favorite god.