gavel

Walter Johnson was walking down a street in Uptown New Orleans a week before Thanksgiving in 2013 when he noticed a Jeep Cherokee with the driver's side window down.

He glanced inside and saw a laptop computer and $15 in cash — a $10 bill and a $5.

Johnson snatched the bills. He left the computer.

As it turns out, the Jeep was a law enforcement "bait vehicle," and Johnson was the catch of the day.

He was found guilty of simple burglary and illegal possession of stolen things at a trial in April 2015, and Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office promptly invoked the state's habitual-offender law.

Johnson, who had prior convictions for simple burglary, heroin possession and cocaine distribution, was deemed a four-time felon. Criminal District Court Judge Karen Herman sentenced him in October 2015 to a mandatory life prison term with no chance for parole.

But on Wednesday, an appeals court panel threw out Johnson's life sentence, finding his street heist "shockingly minor in nature," the amount "extraordinary in its triviality" and Johnson's life sentence an "unconscionable" punishment that "shocks our sense of justice."

The appeals court sent the case back to Herman, telling her to resentence Johnson "to a term that is not unconstitutionally excessive."

The 10-page opinion, written by 4th Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Paul Bonin, marks the latest bid to limit the discretion that state law grants to prosecutors to ratchet up sentences for low-level drug offenders and other nonviolent criminals with multiple convictions.

Judges have little control over such decisions, and the Louisiana Supreme Court has been loath to step on the Legislature's toes by overriding one of the nation's stiffest habitual-offender laws. The state's high court has ruled that departures below the law's mandatory minimum sentences must be limited to "exceedingly rare" cases.

But occasionally it has seen fit to do so. Last year, for instance, the Supreme Court found a 30-year sentence "unconscionable" for Doreatha Mosby, a 73-year-old New Orleans woman who was found with a crack pipe tucked in her bra.

Yet in the case of Bernard Noble, a father of seven who was found with the equivalent of two joints of marijuana, the court found he wasn't "exceedingly rare" enough to allow a sentence below the mandatory 13-year minimum under the statute.

Both of those cases, as well as Johnson's, came out of Orleans Parish, where Cannizzaro employs the habitual-offender law far more often than any other prosecutor in the state.

In 2015, Cannizzaro's office sent 154 convicts off to long prison sentences under the statute — almost one of every four offenders who were shipped to state prisons from New Orleans that year, according to data analyzed by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"You're dealing with different crime problems, socioeconomic levels, and you're dealing with different judges, different sentencing dispositions," Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for Cannizzaro's office, said in explaining the office's penchant for deploying the statute.

"If you were dealing with a situation where a prosecutor feels probation is being given too freely, then the district attorney is required to use the habitual-offender law."

According to a state corrections spokesman, Johnson has returned to prison frequently on probation and parole violations, as well as new charges, since his first conviction, in 1996, for simple burglary.

He has shuttled in and out of prison, with convictions for heroin possession in 2001 and cocaine distribution in 2008. His record also includes a conviction for possession with intent to distribute counterfeit drugs, records show.

Bonin, who is set to take a seat on the Orleans Parish criminal court bench next month, was blunt in his assessment of the life sentence for Johnson, 38, who remains in the State Penitentiary at Angola.

"Mr. Johnson reached into the open window of a bait-vehicle and took $15. He is now condemned to die in prison for that crime," the judge wrote.

"We cannot condone a sentence which condemns Mr. Johnson to a life — and inevitable death — within prison walls, in light of his nonviolent criminal history and the extraordinarily minor crime in this case."

The appeals court's order calls for Herman, the trial judge, to conduct a hearing and arrive at a sentence that is "meaningfully tailored to Mr. Johnson's culpability, the gravity of the instant and prior offenses, and the circumstances of this case."

Judge Sandra Cabrina Jenkins joined in Bonin's decision.

Judge Joy Cossich Lobrano agreed with them in denying Johnson's bid to overturn his conviction — he had argued entrapment — but declined to declare his life sentence excessive. Lobrano said she would have ordered Herman to hold a hearing first before making that determination.

No date has been set for a new sentencing hearing for Johnson.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.