Corey Ladd

Lisa Ladd, Corey Ladd and his daughter Charlee pose in this undated prison photograph.

Photo provided

Corey Ladd’s 5-year-old daughter held her composure through hours of his hearing in state court on Friday. But the moment a judge said he would no longer serve a 17-year sentence for marijuana possession, she broke into tears of joy.

Ladd’s case drew national attention after Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Karen Herman sentenced him to a lengthy term under the state’s stringent habitual-offender law four years ago. He was set to remain in prison until 2028.

But after District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro dropped his office’s request for use of the multiple-offender law Friday, Herman reversed course. She said Ladd will be released as soon as Saturday.

His mother, Lisa Ladd, broke down along with her granddaughter, Charlee, when the judge announced her decision.

“I’m just so glad he gets to come home and be part of Charlee’s life,” she said. “Now she’ll be able to spread her wings and fly.”

Herman’s decision ended a legal saga that began when a New Orleans police officer found a half-ounce of weed on Ladd in 2011. It also gave hope to criminal justice reform advocates who say that all inmates sentenced to lengthy terms for nonviolent offenses deserve a second chance.

Ladd, now 31, was a passenger in a car pulled over for a broken brake light in August 2011. Officers found the half-ounce of marijuana inside a bag tucked in his waistband.

If Ladd were stopped in New Orleans today with no prior convictions, he might receive an $80 fine under a city ordinance passed last year. But because this was 2011, and he had a history of drug convictions, his case took a different path.

In May 2013, a jury convicted Ladd of a felony charge of third-offense marijuana possession. After prosecutors invoked the habitual-offender law — citing Ladd’s prior felony convictions for LSD and hydrocodone — Herman sentenced him to a 20-year prison term, the upper end of the range available to her.

Ladd’s defense attorney, Kenneth Hardin of the Orleans Public Defenders, appealed. The case went to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which vacated his sentence in March 2015 and returned it to Herman to reconsider.

Herman, a former prosecutor, reduced the sentence to 17 years. Ladd appealed again and won a favorable ruling from the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal in April 2016.

“The laws nationwide are changing, as is public perception,” a three-judge panel said in an opinion authored by Chief Judge James McKay III. “The sheer harshness of the sentence shocks the conscience. We therefore find that further consideration of a downward departure from the mandatory minimum sentence is warranted.”

The case gained further attention last year when an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union wrote about Ladd's long sentence, saying it showed why the United States should decriminalize drug possession.

On Friday, Ladd's case landed in Herman’s courtroom once again.

Ladd, who wore the white prison outfit of the Allen Correctional Facility, lit up at the sight of his daughter. From across the courtroom, he lifted his handcuffed hands to his face and blew her a kiss.

The two have never met outside of prison. The first time Ladd held her was at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Cannizzaro did not appear in person at the hearing. But after a lengthy meeting in Herman’s chambers, Assistant District Attorney Taylor Anthony said the district attorney had agreed to withdraw the multiple-offender sentencing enhancement.

Anthony said prosecutors were moved by Ladd’s completion of substance abuse programs and a 2015 change in state law that lessened the penalties for marijuana possession.

“I do wish him well, whether he gets out tomorrow or he gets out years from now,” Anthony said.

Herman still had the discretion to resentence Ladd to anywhere up to 20 years in prison. Hardin made a plea for leniency.

“Your honor, this community needs to believe in fairness again, and your honor, you have an opportunity to do that through Mr. Ladd,” Hardin said.

Herman said she applauded the District Attorney’s Office for removing the multiple bill. She then resentenced Ladd to 10 years in prison. With credit for time served and so-called “good time credit” under Department of Corrections rules, he is now eligible for immediate release.

“I’m putting my faith in you,” Herman said. “I want you to see your daughter graduate from high school. I want you to see your daughter walk down the aisle.”

“I want you to have every opportunity in the world that you’re able to have,” she said.

Ladd plans to live with his mother in Kenner and work at a landscaping company when he is released.

The judge’s ruling brought tears to the eyes of Ladd’s mother, father and daughter. It also came as a vindication for his defense attorney and for advocates working to reform Louisiana’s sentencing laws.

Earlier this week those advocates scored a victory when the Legislature approved several laws that are projected to reduce the state's prison population by 10 percent over the next decade.

Ladd’s mother said she hopes the judge’s decision will prompt further reforms.

“This wasn’t just about Corey or for Corey,” she said. “There’s a lot of other people in this situation.”

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

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