In the midst of 1970s-style drug war hysteria, Louisiana legislators passed a law mandating life without parole for people convicted of selling heroin. In 2001, the legislature moved to amend that draconian law, amending it so that heroin distribution sentences ran from five to 50 years in prison. That 2001 law also established a "risk review" process for early release of prisoners sentenced under harsh old laws. In 2003, the legislature specifically included the heroin lifers in the group of convicts who could seek redress via the review process, and in 2005, it amended the law to allow inmates to seek a review after serving seven years of their sentences.
More than 90 heroin lifers remain behind bars, many of them now elderly after having spent the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and half of the 2000s behind bars.
Last year, trial court judges in Orleans and St. Tammany parishes, frustrated with the glacial pace at which the reviews were moving, revised downward the sentences of a pair of heroin lifers and ordered their immediate release. The state of Louisiana appealed the decision, and this week the state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case.
Prosecutors argued Tuesday that the heroin lifers must go through an arduous and extensive review process controlled by the Department of Corrections to seek a sentence reduction and the freedom it would deliver. The trial judges who ordered prisoners released exceeded their jurisdiction, said Graham Bosworth of the New Orleans district attorney's office.
But attorneys representing the heroin lifers argued that recent legislative changes made the old sentences patently illegal and that judges have the authority to resentence those prisoners. "We have to trust people we have on the district court benches to exercise their jurisdiction wisely," said attorney Dwight Doskey.
The two men whose cases are being appealed are Melvin Smith, who was convicted in 1977 and recently ordered released by Orleans Criminal District Court Judge Calvin Johnson, who had resentenced him to 28 years -- essentially time served; and Wesley Dick, who was sentenced to life in 2001 just before the law changed. District Judge Patricia Hedges freed him in July after cutting his sentence to 10 years.
In a sign of prosecutorial vindictiveness, Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan blocked Smith's release. The elderly Smith remains wheelchair-bound at the Orleans Parish House of Detention pending the Supreme Court decision regarding his fate.