On April 5 as part of the Arkansas Supreme Courts public outreach program, oral arguments were held in the Heber Springs High school Fine Arts Auditorium, concerning the case HARRIS V. STATE OF ARKANSAS. (CR-17-533) Twice each year the Supreme Court travels within the state to allow the public the opportunity to see how the court functions and to witness oral arguments in an actual case. Students from Heber Springs, Pangburn, Quitman, Mountain View, Midland, Rosebud, and ASU were present to observe the Appellate Court proceeding as were many members of the public.
Derrick Lynell Harris was accused of the capital murder and the aggravated robbery of Jimmy Gathings in 1996. Gathings was was shot and killed during the armed robbery. At trial, Harris was found guilty and sentenced to a mandatory sentence of life, without parole. Harris was 15 years old when he committed the crime. A new law called the Fair Sentencing of Minors Act of 2017 (FSMA) required all minors with a sentence of life without parole to have their sentence changed to life in prison with eligibility for parole after 30 years. Harris is challenging the FSMA and contends that he should be allowed a new sentencing hearing.
Hearing the case were Associate Justice Rhonda K. Wood, Associate Justice Josephine L. Hart, Associate Justice Robin F. Wynne, Associate Justice Shawn A. Womack, Associate Justice Karen R. Baker, Chief Justice John Dan Kemp and Associate Justice Courtney Hudson Goodson.
Although Appeals on Wheels is a legal argument about what the proper interpretation of the law is, it is not a trial and therefore there are no witnesses and no evidence presented. The precedents for this case are MILLER V. ALABAMA, in which a 2012 US Supreme court decision found that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles violated their constitutional rights, JACKSON V. NORRIS when a decision was made by the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2013, following the miller case, that a man sentenced to life without parole when he was a juvenile should have his sentence vacated and be given a new sentencing hearing and KELLEY V. GORDON, a 2016 decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court deciding that another felon sentenced to life without parole as a minor should receive the same relief as was granted in the Jackson case and have his sentence vacated as well and receive a new resentencing hearing. Both the Jackson and Kelley cases were decided before the passage of FSMA. A precedence is a principle, earlier action or rule established in previous legal cases that guide or binds later courts in how they decide or analyze the arguments in a new case.
Under the FSMA, Harris had his sentence of life without parole changed to life with the possibility of parole in 2017, under the new law he was not given a resentencing hearing and he argues that he has the right to a new, individual resentencing hearing that could possibly provide evidence that may reduce his sentence. He argues that he received unfair and unequal treatment when he was resentenced under FSMA without a hearing, that it is a violation of his Eighth Amendment right to be switched from life without parole to life with the possibility of parole without a hearing. Additionally, he argues that FSMA is unconstitutional because it imposes punishment without a trial and that it subjected him to a harsher penalty than he could have received under the new law at the time he committed the crime and that it violates the principle of Separation of powers. A doctrine of constitutional law to keep the three branches of the government separate.
The States response to these arguments was that no new arguments were allowed, Harris had the chance to do so after asking to be resentenced and failed to do so. That only juvenile sentenced to life without parole have the right to resentencing hearings but because Harris' sentence was changed to life with the possibility of parole he doesn't have the right to a new hearing. The State rejected all of Harris' arguments deciding that there are no separation of power issues and that he did not receive unfair, unequal, or arbitrary punishment.
After the oral arguments were presented and the court adjourned, students were divided into smaller groups with a Justice speaking to each group. This gave the students an opportunity to have individualized attention from a member of the state's’ highest court, and to ask any questions they may have about the justice system and how the court operates within our communities.
Information used in this article can be obtained at COURT CONNECT Case ID CR-17-533.( URL: https://caseinfo.aoc.Arkansas.gov). Additional information on FSMA can be found at the Arkansas Legislatures website (URL: https://goo.gl/xNMGZB).