The Arkansas Supreme Court continues to grapple, with divisions, on how to square new federal and state law on resentencing people who got life without parole sentences for capital crimes committed when they were minors.

Today, the Supreme Court said  Derrick Harris was entitled to a resentencing hearing in Drew Circuit Court. The judge there had refused a hearing and simply changed his sentence to life with parole eligibility after 30 years, as provided in a 2017 state law meant to accommodate a U.S. Supreme Court ruling outlawing no-parole sentences for minors.


The Supreme Court said the Fairness in Sentencing to Minors Act, which took effect March 20,, 2017  did not apply retroactively, only to those sentenced from that date forward. Harris had his first conviction set aside and had a resentencing hearing in 2016.  The state argued that the act was intended to apply retroactively, but the court found the express language doesn’t make that clear. So, Harris should be sentenced under terms applied to the offense of which he stood convicted after winning a reversal of the life-without sentence. He can present evidence on a sentence prescribed for a Class Y felony, 10 to 40 years.

Harris, now 38, was 16 when convicted in December 1996 of capital murder and robbery in the slaying of a Monticello used car dealer, Jimmy Gathings.  He’s been a state prison inmate since December 1996.


Justices Rhonda Wood and Shawn Womack dissented. Womack said the decision could produce a more lenient sentence for Harris than he deserves and sets a precedent for 50 more prisoners.

Justice Robin Wynne said he disagreed on the interpretation of the new state law, but said it would be unfair to apply a stricter standard to Harris than to others previously allowed the same treatment.


In other Supreme Court decisions today:

* SEXUAL ASSAULT CONVICTION UPHELD: The court affirmed the conviction of Carl Mouton, former band director at Maumelle High School, for sexual contact with a band member. The court rejected an appeal that Mouton should have been allowed to introduce evidence of a sexual relationship between the victim and another band member who was allowed to be identified in her testimony only as a “friend.”

* JEFFERSON COUNTY ELECTION SQUABBLE: Also today the court reversed a circuit judge’s decision against the Jefferson County Election Commission (Stu Soffer, chair) over what cooperation it had to provide an election coordinator hired by the county judge, long squabbling with the commission. Soffer says it’s an important protection for election commissions against county judge meddling. You can read the details here.