Winds of Change

Post Date: September 19, 2013

(New York Times) — Back in 1991, the Supreme Court upheld a Michigan man’s prison sentence of life without the possibility of parole for possessing more than 1.5 pounds of cocaine. The sentence did not represent the third strike of a three-strikes law: the prisoner, Ronald A. Harmelin, 45, had no previous criminal record. The police found the drugs when they stopped him for running a red light. Since simple possession was enough to trigger Michigan’s mandatory life-without-parole sentence, the prosecution didn’t even have to bother trying to prove that Mr. Harmelin intended to sell the cocaine.

In upholding the sentence, the court rejected the argument that it was so disproportionate to the crime as to violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The three justices who then occupied the middle of the court (yes, there was a multi-justice middle back then) — Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O’Connor and David H. Souter — voted with the 5-to-4 majority. Read more