Seven months after Joseph Branch was sentenced to 7 ½ years in prison for killing a bicyclist and severely injuring another in a 2012 drunken-driving crash on Perkins Road, a prosecutor and the Baton Rouge man’s attorneys were back in court Thursday arguing over how much time he’ll actually serve.
Prosecutor Julie Cullen contends the 31-year-old should serve at least 85 percent of his negotiated sentence, or more than six years. Branch’s lead attorney, James Manasseh, claims Branch should spend only 40 percent of his term behind bars, or three years.
Wearing a blue Hunt Correctional Institute shirt and blue jeans, Branch returned Thursday to state District Judge Mike Erwin’s courtroom because Cullen asked the judge to clarify his March 18 sentence and state in open court that Branch was sentenced for a crime of violence — that being vehicular homicide.
The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled in a separate case in March 2013 that vehicular homicide is a crime of violence that requires someone convicted of the crime to serve at least 85 percent of his sentence.
That ruling, however, came after Branch’s fatal crash, and the high court did not say whether its decision applied to older cases.
Cullen said Thursday that after Branch’s sentencing in March, the state Department of Corrections notified her that the department — pursuant to its policies — would not require Branch to serve 85 percent of his sentence before becoming eligible for parole.
Cullen, however, told Erwin the department indicated that if he would specify on the record that Branch was sentenced for a crime of violence under state law, the department would require Branch to serve at least 85 percent of his term.
Cullen reminded the judge Thursday that the morning of Branch’s sentencing, all parties agreed in his chambers that the state Supreme Court had designated vehicular homicide as a crime of violence and that the intention was for Branch to serve at least 85 percent of negotiated sentence before becoming parole eligible.
“It’s a crime of violence,” Erwin reiterated from the bench Thursday. “I just failed to say those words” on March 18.
Branch told the judge he was not aware of the percentages of time he might have to serve when he agreed to the 7 ½ -year sentence.
Manasseh, who argued that the judge does not have the statutory authority to declare something a crime of violence, said he will appeal the ruling. He also insisted the state Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling should not be applied retroactively.
Manasseh told Erwin that under Louisiana’s good-time laws, Branch should be eligible for release for good behavior after serving 40 percent of his sentence.
Cullen said after court that a Department of Corrections rule should not trump a Louisiana Supreme Court decision.
“Our goal in negotiating this sentence was for him to serve 85 percent of 7½ years,” she added.
Manasseh said outside Erwin’s courtroom that the department “should sentence based on what the law says” — and what the law said at the time of Branch’s fatal crash was that he should serve 40 percent of whatever sentence he received.
Branch’s blood-alcohol content was 0.307 percent at the time of the Jan. 21, 2012, crash near Quail Run Drive. In Louisiana for those 21 and older, a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent or higher is considered presumptive evidence of drunken driving.