After being locked up more than seven years over two joints’ worth of marijuana, the first thing Bernard Noble wanted to do was eat.

His usual meal behind bars at the lockup in Bossier Parish was a serving of grits. So Noble steered his family to a burger joint he had been dreaming about, known to him only from ads on the radio.

“I got a big old greasy patty melt with mushrooms on it, and it was super delicious,” he said.

Noble was released at the stroke of midnight Thursday morning. For supporters around the country, including a New York hedge fund billionaire who pushed for his release, his lengthy term for marijuana possession was a source of outrage. For Noble it was a personal nightmare.

Yet he seemed at ease as he sat down for his first in-person interview on Friday, wearing blue spectacles, a camo shirt and sparkling white K-Swiss tennis shoes.

The 51-year-old New Orleanian said he is thrilled to be united with his family and the simple pleasures of life outside jail, like that greasy hamburger. He has five months of parole left to serve, but he plans to become a voice for other nonviolent offenders in Louisiana prisons.

“They could not put no shackles on my thoughts and my beliefs," he said.

Noble started his journey to becoming a national cause célèbre as a poor kid in Gert Town. He readily admits that decades ago he had a problem with drugs — cocaine and heroin, to be specific.

“I was doing petty theft because I had an addiction,” he said.

He was convicted at least six times of marijuana or cocaine possession in Orleans and Jefferson parishes but never served serious time. He was also never convicted of a felony crime of violence.

After Hurricane Katrina, Noble evacuated to Kansas City, Missouri, where he reinvented himself as a chef serving classic New Orleans dishes out of a window in a friend’s mechanic shop.

Customers called him by his nickname, “Peanut,” and lapped up his gumbo, turkey necks and yakamein. He said he was earning the best money of his life and planned to buy a house.

“I was loving my new life," he said. "Katrina was good for me.” 

He was also off drugs, he said. Then he made the mistake of returning home for a visit with his family in October 2010.

According to police, officers spotted him riding his bicycle the wrong way down a street in Orleans Parish and found three grams of marijuana on him. Noble maintained at his trial that the drug was on the ground and that he was with several friends, any one of whom could have tossed it there.

After Noble rejected a plea deal offer of five years, a six-member jury convicted him of fourth-offense marijuana possession. Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office then moved to ratchet up his sentence by dubbing him a habitual offender.

Cannizzaro's office leads the state in deploying one of the nation’s strictest habitual-offender laws, according to data analyzed by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Those laws impose harsher penalties when an offender has previous felony convictions, like the two cocaine possession charges invoked against Noble.

Statewide, 78 percent of habitual-offender convictions are for nonviolent offenses, according to the Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office.

Although a state judge tried to impose a lower sentence, Cannizzaro’s office fought to the Louisiana Supreme Court to uphold a 13.3-year prison term. The prosecutors won.

Noble’s mother collected almost 75,000 signatures on a petition to win his release. Dan Loeb, a hedge fund manager whose net worth is estimated by Forbes at $3.2 billion, pushed for him to be granted clemency.

After the Legislature reduced penalties for marijuana possession — a change that one judge credited in part to the attention Noble’s case drew — Cannizzaro’s office agreed in December 2016 to reduce Noble’s sentence to eight years. That paved the way for his release with credit for good behavior this month.

In the meantime, Noble had been in six parish jails in seven years. Many of the men he spent time with also were incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, but even they marveled at his lengthy term for marijuana possession, he said.

“Ain't no damn way!” he said other inmates would tell him.

“I was the newest black Elvis Presley,” he said of his celebrity. 

Yet his status curried him little favor with guards and wardens, who told him he brought too much media attention to their lockups, he said.

“They thought that I was a threat, which they was right,” he said.

Noble said he lost three friends in jails whose deaths he attributes to poor health care for inmates. He was thrown in solitary confinement after complaining about a stomach illness this year, he said.

One of his darkest moments came in 2013, when it seemed like a judge’s attempt to give him a shorter sentence might succeed. He had purchased a pair of Nike Jordan sneakers in anticipation. Then he got word that one of the appeals from Cannizzaro’s office was successful, he said.

“I got resentenced, went back to that place with a broken heart and put the shoes up,” he said.

He found comfort in letters from supporters around the country, prayer and a book about a devout Christian stuck behind the Berlin Wall. He was happy when Colorado legalized pot in 2012, and he still laughs that a California dispensary dubbed him a POW — “prisoner of weed.”

In February, the Louisiana Parole Board granted Noble parole, with a release date in April, but he was set for release this month regardless.

Noble drove back to New Orleans from a Bossier Parish jail on Thursday and began visiting with his children. He has seven kids, five of them in the New Orleans area.

“He missed a lot of my life, so it’s going to be good to get back to how we was,” said his eldest daughter, Brion Foucha, 25.

Noble plans to live with his aunt in Slidell. He is not sure what he will do for work. But he hopes to become an active voice in the conversation on criminal justice reform. Louisiana's laws may have put him behind bars for seven years, but he has no plans to leave the state.

“I'm here. I’m going to take a stand,” he said.

Cannizzaro released a short statement when Noble was granted parole. “We hope that Mr. Noble has been able to resolve his substance-abuse issues and will lead a law-abiding life free of further involvement in the criminal justice system,” the district attorney said.

Noble resorts to four-letter words when he hears the DA’s name. He said he hopes to rally voters against Cannizzaro, who is up for re-election in 2020.

“I’m going to be at the front of the line saying, ‘Don’t do it,’ ” he said.

The discussion on criminal justice reform is also raging in the Legislature once again this year. Rep. Chad Brown, D-Plaquemine, has introduced a bill that would apply the habitual-offender law only to violent offenses.

“Stories like Bernard’s show us the failure of our criminal justice system,” said Sarah Omojola, a policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which supports the bill.

Noble said that in addition to advocacy work, he hopes to write a book about his experiences so as to give comfort to other prisoners.

“The story’s going to be about how you can make it," he said. "It’s going to be hard. But don’t stray from the plan.” 

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432