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First-time Offender Fights Life Sentence on Drug Charge

November 4, 1990

DETROIT (AP) _ Ronald Harmelin didn’t fit the flashy drug kingpin image - no tailored silk suit, dripping gold jewelry or gleaming Mercedes-Benz for him.

Still, he had 672 grams of cocaine in the trunk of his 9-year-old Ford when he was arrested by suburban Oak Park police on May 12, 1986. Under Michigan law, that was enough to justify his life sentence without parole.

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments Monday on whether Michigan’s law requiring such a sentence is cruel and unusual punishment. Under the state’s law, possession of 650 grams or more of cocaine brings a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.

Harmelin probably would be out of prison by now if federal officials arrested him. Under federal law, a first offender possessing 650 grams - almost 1 1/2 pounds - would face a five-to-40-year penalty with possibility of parole.

″That’s the difference between being busted by the Drug Enforcement Administration and Oak Park police. It’s the difference between one year and the rest of his life,″ said Paul Denenfeld, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. ″It flies in the face of individualized sentencing.″

From his cell at Scott Regional Facility in a Detroit suburb, the 45-year- old Harmelin got the high court’s attention with a petition that he was ″unjustly thrown into the pit of prison for all eternity without the hope of release.″

That’s the point, said Oakland County prosecutor Richard Thompson, who will argue that Harmelin’s sentence is constitutional.

″Michigan’s law is the most enlightened in the country,″ Thompson said. ″It provides a deterrent and permanently removes the drug trafficking from the community.″

Detroit lawyer Carla Johnson, appointed to represent Harmelin, said sentencing should look at prior criminal record and level of involvement in the drug world. Harmelin had no prior record.

″He was not proven to be anything but a possessor of cocaine,″ Johnson said. ″The people who end up doing mandatory life are not the kingpins the statute was aimed at. These people are mostly first-time offenders and to punish them like we punish murderers is not right.″

The ACLU said it was concerned other states will enact laws similar to Michigan’s if it is upheld by the Supreme Court.

In California, for instance, no state laws regulate sentencing for drug crimes. Judges rely on federal guidelines to put away drug dealers for life without parole.

″We’ll certainly be taking a look at the Michigan case,″ said John Gordnier, an assistant attorney general in California. ″We’ll be interested in the arguments.″

Gordnier said the concept of life without parole is appropriate.

″Many of those who deal with narcotics have probably caused someone to receive drugs and later die as a result of the drugs,″ he said. ″The penalty is not inappropriate given the price society is paying.″

In Florida, those convicted of selling, purchasing or delivering more than 400 grams of cocaine face a mandatory 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, said Richard Doran, the Florida attorney general’s director of criminal appeals.

Florida doesn’t have to prove the offender was a dealer.

″If you have more than 400 grams in your possession, the state assumes you’re a trafficker,″ Doran said. Cocaine is usually sold by the gram.

Neil Fink, chairman of Criminal Defense Lawyers of Michigan, said if the high court upholds the law, Harmelin can again petition the Michigan Supreme Court, which refused in January to hear the case.

There are 123 inmates in Michigan serving sentences like Harmelin’s.

Harmelin, who could not be interviewed, can only wait. A decision is expected early next year. Johnson said Harmelin remains hopeful.

″With all this publicity, he’s kind of got his spirits up a little bit,″ Johnson said. ″Freedom is a state of mind. If you think you can get out, there’s some hope and you can tolerate it.″