Six years into a 13-year sentence for possessing enough marijuana to fill two joints, Bernard Noble saw his prison term cut by years on Monday, when Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office agreed to reduce it to eight years.
Noble, a 50-year-old father of seven, became a national poster child for marijuana sentencing reform after Cannizzaro's office invoked the state's habitual-offender law against him and the Louisiana Supreme Court refused to let two local judges veer below it.
The new sentence is in line with a reduction in marijuana penalties approved by the Legislature last year. The old law, under which Noble was convicted, set a maximum of 20 years for repeat marijuana convictions, with that figure doubling under the habitual-offender law.
Just what prompted the change of heart from Cannizzaro, whose office deploys the repeat-offender law more than any other district attorney's office in the state, was unclear.
Prosecutors in Louisiana wield one of the stiffest habitual-offender laws in the nation, a s…
A high school graduate with a 20-year work history as a laborer, Noble appeared in court Thursday in black-and-white striped prison garb and shackles.
"Congratulations to you, sir," Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich said after he endorsed the deal. "I think you have a debt of gratitude to the state."
Noble will remain in prison for the time being. As a habitual offender, he must serve the bulk of what remains of his new sentence, though he becomes immediately eligible for parole.
"I've always had faith for the law," Noble told the judge. "I've never been a person that has flagrant disregard toward the law."
For years, Noble argued that the 13-year prison term was excessive punishment, for himself and the family members he supported.
He has a lengthy rap sheet for drug possession but no history of violence. He has been convicted at least six times for marijuana or cocaine possession in Orleans and Jefferson parishes. In each case, he received suspended sentences or short stints behind bars, records show.
Then, in October 2010, police officers stopped him as he rode a bicycle near his father's house in New Orleans, frisked him and turned up less than three grams of marijuana.
A six-member jury convicted Noble in May 2011 of fourth-offense marijuana possession, a crime that carries a sentence of zero to 20 years.
Cannizzaro's office then moved to have Noble sentenced as a three-time felon under one of the nation's stiffest habitual-offender laws.
Under the law, "triple" felons must serve at least two-thirds of the maximum sentence for a particular offense. That meant 13.3 years for Noble.
But Criminal District Court Judge Terry Alarcon, who is now retired, refused to adhere to that figure, arriving instead at a five-year sentence for Noble. However, an appeals court found that Alarcon failed to articulate his reasons for the downward departure.
Zibilich, Alarcon's successor, then resentenced Noble to the same five years. He cited Noble's nonviolent history, his support of his children and the judge's opinion that when it comes to possession, marijuana is less serious than other drugs.
An appeals court upheld the sentence, but Cannizzaro's office appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which ruled in May 2013 that Noble's case was not the "exceptionally rare" case that warranted going against the Legislature's wishes.
Negotiations with Cannizzaro's office to lower Noble's sentence had been going on for months.
"It's been a very long road," said his attorney, Jee Park. "I'm really happy for Mr. Bernard's family that they can be reunited with him sooner. This six years he's done has been really hard. It's the first time he's spent any time in prison, and to do that for two joints has been hard on him."
Zibilich said the reduction in maximum sentences for marijuana possession in Louisiana is due "in large part to this case."
"What's important here is the interest of justice, and the fact the District Attorney's Office is joining in this motion is possibly a left-handed way of saying this penal provision is too harsh," Zibilich said.
"We wish to welcome you back into society."
Noble's eldest daughter, Brion Foucha, was 17 when her father was arrested and now is 24. Smiling after the hearing Monday, Foucha said she's been told that Noble could be sent to a work-release program in 10 months.
"This is what we wanted to happen," she said.