Sunday, May 19, 2019
Revisiting Life without Parole in Alabama One Prisoner at a Time
By Guest Blogger Prof. Courtney Cross
In 2018, the Alabama legislature reduced the maximum sentence for drug trafficking from life without parole to life with the possibility of parole. While this amendment represents a welcome shift away from imposing life without parole sentences on non-violent defendants, it falls short of enacting large-scale reform for several reasons. First, the new law is not retroactive and there are more than 20 individuals serving life without parole sentences in Alabama for manufacturing or trafficking illegal drugs. Second, defendants may still be sentenced to life without parole if their criminal histories trigger harsher sentencing under the state’s mandatory habitual felony offender sentencing enhancement. Several of the above individuals are serving life without parole because their criminal records mandated this sentence. Lee Carroll Booker, for example, is a 76-year-old army veteran serving life without parole for growing marijuana plants in his backyard: his over 30-year-old robbery convictions mandated this outcome despite recognition from then-Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore that the sentence was excessive. Mr. Booker and others with similar sentences will end up dying in prison for non-violent drug crimes.
Geneva Cooley faced a similar fate after being arrested in 2002 with a gym sock containing heroin and hydromorphone pills. 72-year-old now, she was 55 at the time of her arrest. After a brief trial, she was found guilty of trafficking the heroin and the pills. She was also found guilty of two counts of failing to obtain a tax stamp for the drugs. She was sentenced to life without parole on the heroin charge which, at the time of her sentencing in 2006, was a mandatory sentence. Pursuant to the habitual offender law and the trial court’s finding that Ms. Cooley had two prior felony convictions, her other trafficking charge and the tax stamp charges resulted in concurrent life sentences. Ms. Cooley’s direct appeals and post-conviction petitions had all been denied until 2019 when she and her team of attorneys from the clinical program at the Culverhouse School of Law at the University of Alabama decided to file another post-conviction petition.
This time, the attorneys alleged that Ms. Cooley’s sentence violated the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and pointed to the recent removal of life without parole from the drug trafficking scheme as well as efforts in other states and at the federal level to limit the use of life without parole for non-violent crimes. Ms. Cooley sought to be resentenced to life with the possibility of parole—the sentence she would receive if convicted today. The newly-elected district attorney in Jefferson County did not oppose the resentencing and filed a response that echoed Ms. Cooley’s arguments. After an evidentiary hearing in which both Ms. Cooley and the executive director of Alabama’s Sentencing Commission testified, Judge Stephen Wallace—who did not preside over Ms. Cooley’s original trial—ordered that she be resentenced to life with the possibility of parole pursuant to his own analysis of the 8th Amendment.
Ms. Cooley, who is currently awaiting her parole hearing, was fortunate in obtaining this outcome: not only had a reform-minded district attorney recently been elected, her sentencing judge had been replaced by a former criminal and civil rights attorney. Moreover, her life without parole sentence had stemmed from the outdated drug trafficking sentencing scheme and not from the habitual offender statute, which has proven nearly impossible to challenge.
While Ms. Cooley’s resentencing will have no direct impact on other prisoners’ sentences, it is another example of the admittedly slow shift away from inflicting the harshest of punishments on nonviolent drug offenders. While the case sets no legal precedents, DA Carr has stated that he hopes other prosecutors and judges will be exercise similar discretion and compassion. Until they do—or the
legislature takes action—nonviolent drug offenders sentenced to life without parole will continue to live out their days and take their last breaths in Alabama’s unforgiving prisons.