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Court to Decide on Sentences in Michigan Drug Case

May 29, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today agreed to decide whether states may impose mandatory life sentences without possibility of parole for people convicted of possessing large amounts of drugs.

The justices said they will study the appeal of Ronald Harmelin, convicted in Oak Park, Mich., of possessing more than 650 grams of cocaine.

Harmelin contends that his life sentence without possibility of parole violates the Constitution’s ban on ″cruel and unusual punishment.″

Michigan courts rejected that contention.

The justices were told Michigan is the only state that imposes such a mandatory sentence. But if the state sentencing law is upheld, other states might follow Michigan’s lead in their fight against drug use.

Oak Park police stopped Harmelin’s car for going through a red light May 12, 1986. Police found more than a pound of cocaine when they searched the car’s trunk.

The appeal acted on today attacked Harmelin’s conviction as well as his sentence, but the justices said they were limiting their review to the sentence.

In other words, they left intact Harmelin’s conviction.

The appeal said: ″There is no other crime in Michigan for which the punishment is mandatory life without parole except for first-degree murder.

″A person with a long criminal record could commit the foulest of atrocities - hacking off limbs or poking out eyes of children or attempting to assassinate public officials - without even the possibility of receiving a sentence as high as Ronnie Harmelin,″ the appeal said.

The appeal added, ″This mandatory sentence law does nothing to deter the real drug kingpins, nor does it help protect society from drugs.″

But Michigan prosecutors defended the sentence as they urged the justices to reject Harmelin’s appeal.

″While the defendant portrays himself as an innocent and misguided individual with no prior record, it is clear that he possessed well over 650 grams of cocaine, some of which was individually packaged for apparent resale,″ the state prosecutors said.

They noted that he also possessed other drugs, a gun and a beeper.

But Harmelin was not convicted of distributing drugs or of possession of drugs with intention to distribute.

A Michigan appeals court spent two sentences rejecting Harmelin’s constitutional challenge to his sentence.

″Defendant’s last claim is that the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment is entirely out of proportion to the seriousness of his crime and constitutes a cruel and unusual punishment proscribed by the U.S. Constitution’s 8th Amendment and (the state constitution). We disagree,″ the appeals court said.

It cited a previous state appeals court ruling for that conclusion.

The Michigan Supreme Court refused to hear Harmelin’s appeal last Jan. 29.

The case is Harmelin vs. Michigan, 89-7272.