Speed Reads

Criminal injustice

Court overturns life sentence for stealing $15

A Louisiana appeals court this week tossed out a sentence of life without parole given to a man named Walter Johnson for stealing $15 from a bait vehicle set up by police to catch petty thieves.

Johnson was given a life sentence because of a "three strikes" sentencing law in his state. He has three prior convictions for nonviolent crimes — two drug charges and one burglary — so his fourth conviction escalated what would otherwise have been a minor punishment to a mandatory minimum of life in prison.

The "sentence imposed on Mr. Johnson is 'legal' in the sense that it falls within the statutory range," wrote Judge Paul Bonin in the appeals decision. "Despite its legality, however, we find the life-without-parole sentence imposed upon Mr. Johnson unconstitutionally excessive" given the "triviality" of Johnson's crime and the lack of violence in his criminal history.

Johnson's successful appeal did not overturn the habitual offender law which mandated his life sentence, meaning it may still be applied to others in similar circumstances.