“Prisoner of Weed” Released, Sets Sights on Criminal Justice Reform
by Dale Chappell
The man dubbed a POW (“prisoner of weed”) by his supporters was finally released from a Louisiana prison in February 2018 following public outcry over his harsh 13-year sentence for possession of about two joint’s worth of marijuana. He served around eight years and now wants to fight for criminal justice reform, starting with the prosecutor in his case.
When Bernard Noble was arrested in 2010 for possession of three grams of marijuana – barely enough to make two joints – he had no idea he would be thrown in prison, especially not for a 13-year sentence. After all, he’d had several minor drug possession convictions in the past and never did any “hard time.” But Noble wasn’t aware of Louisiana’s draconian habitual offender laws and the prosecutor who led the state in winning harsh sentences for non-violent drug crimes: Orleans Parish D.A. Leon Cannizzaro.
By the time Cannizzaro was done, he had appealed Noble’s original five-year sentence three times as being too lenient, finally convincing the Louisiana Supreme Court that Noble deserved more than 13 years in prison due to his past drug convictions.
Louisiana has one of the nation’s strictest habitual offender laws, with 78 percent of its habitual offender sentences being imposed for non-violent drug offenses, such as Noble’s simple possession of marijuana.
Noble’s mother, Elnora, fought for justice for her son. She gathered about 75,000 signatures on a change.org petition and eventually caught the attention of billionaire Daniel Loeb, a frequent donor to justice reform efforts.
“Stories like Bernard’s show us the failure of our criminal justice system,” said Sarah Omojola, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which supported reforms that helped achieve Noble’s eventual release. His sentence seemed even more unfair given that so many other states were legalizing marijuana.
The harsh sentence came after prosecutors offered Noble a five-year deal, which he rejected; thinking he could beat the charge, he exercised his constitutional right to a jury trial. When the jury convicted him, though, Cannizzaro hit him with the “trial penalty,” as some call it: a habitual offender enhancement. Noble’s appeals were denied. He sought clemency but was rejected because he had not served at least 10 years.
His luck changed in 2015 when state lawmakers passed a bill to reduce the maximum sentence for marijuana possession. Under the new law, Noble’s sentence would have been a maximum of eight years. But the law was not made retroactive.
Still, Noble’s attorney, Jee Park with Innocence Project New Orleans, negotiated with the D.A.’s office. In December 2016, Noble was resentenced to eight years – which moved his release date to early 2018.
In an emailed statement from Cannizzaro after Noble’s resentencing, the prosecutor reiterated that Noble had received the harsh sentence because he chose to go before a jury. Noble believed he “would beat the case at trial,” Cannizzaro said. “He did not.”
Noble stated he wasn’t sure what he would do for work after his release, but said he wants to fight for criminal justice reform.
“I’m ready to get to work,” he said. “I didn’t go through all of this just to come home ... and work at McDonalds.”
His first task is to make sure Cannizzaro doesn’t get re-elected in 2020. “I’m going to be at the front line saying, ‘Don’t do it,’” he said of his plans to oppose the D.A. at election time.
Sources: theadvocate.com, themarshallproject.com, drugpolicy.org