The New York Times editorial board weighed in Thursday on what they called the “outrageous” sentenced handed down to Lee Carroll Brooker, a 75-year-old disabled veteran in Alabama who is serving a life sentence for growing marijuana. The NYT called on the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Brooker’s sentence, saying it’s the embodiment of cruel and unusual punishment.
Brooker was convicted of drug trafficking in 2014, after police in Dothan, Alabama raided his son’s home in 2011; his son, Darren Lee Brooker, was also charged. The police described what they found as a “growing operation” in a wooded area behind the house, saying they seized 42 plants with a “street value” of $92,000.
Darren was eventually sentenced to five years’ probation, with a suspended five-year prison sentence that will be dismissed if he doesn’t violate any of his terms. But his father had four previous felony convictions from decades ago, including armed robbery, for which he served time. Alabama law mandates that anyone with prior felonies get an automatic life sentence for possessing more than about two pounds of weed.
Even Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore recognizes that there’s a problem here. Moore, best known for being rabidly anti-gay, is a lot more reasonable on drug law. (In a possibly-related detail, Moore’s son was arrested in 2015 for possession of marijuana and Xanax).
Brooker’s sentence, Moore wrote, in a special 2015 memo, is “excessive and unjustified,” and showed a need for a change in the state’s drug laws: “A trial court should have the discretion to impose a less severe sentence than life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.”
Brooker is appealing his sentence, on the grounds that it violates his Eighth Amendment rights to be free of cruel and unusual punishment. On Friday, the Supreme Court is expected to decide whether to hear Brooker’s case. The Times weighed in unambiguously, calling on the court to overturn the sentence, adding that mandatory life sentences—especially for nonviolent crimes—don’t seem like the best idea:
Life without parole, second only to the death penalty in severity, should never be a mandatory sentence for any crime, much less for simple possession of marijuana, which is not even a crime in many parts of the country. If this punishment is ever meted out, it should be by a judge who has carefully weighed the individual circumstances of a case.
The paper suggested, too, that this is a bit of a moral turning point in this country’s history:
The court has already banned mandatory death sentences and mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, both on the grounds that the Eighth Amendment must adapt to the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” By that standard, and given rapidly evolving public opinion on marijuana, no one should be sent to prison forever for possessing a small amount of marijuana for medical or personal use.
More than 3,000 people in the United States are doing life for nonviolent crimes, according to the ACLU. While Brooker is white, nearly 65 percent of those convicted are black. Their crimes are for things like theft and drug possession; many are serving more time for crack than they would’ve had they been caught with powder cocaine. The ACLU calls those life sentences “a living death,” one that’s sorely out of step with international law.
Lee Carroll Brooker’s mugshot. Photo via Houston County Sheriff’s Office/Dothan Eagle