John Esteen

John Esteen poses for a photograph inside a library in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Esteen, who is serving a 100-year sentence for drug convictions, was at the center of a January ruling from the state Supreme Court.

John Esteen, a state prisoner whose legal fight over his 100-year sentence for nonviolent drug crimes led to a landmark state Supreme Court decision, won parole on Tuesday.

Esteen collapsed on a table in relief after the state Parole Board unanimously voted to release him from his lengthy sentence for cocaine and racketeering convictions.

It cited his record of self-improvement over almost two decades behind bars. Without parole, his earliest release date would have been in 2049.

Just before the vote, Esteen told the board it was his mother’s 67th birthday.

“I think this would be the best birthday she would ever have,” said Esteen, 51. “It would be like God moving in my life on the spot.”

Esteen, a minister and trusty at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, is well-known at the massive prison for lending his name to a key decision from the Louisiana Supreme Court that has already led to release or shorter sentences for dozens of people convicted under drug and habitual-offender laws.

Under harsh laws from the 1990s, Esteen received a 150-year sentence on cocaine and racketeering convictions for running a drug distribution operation in Jefferson Parish in 2000. When Louisiana legislators eased up on harsh sentencing laws in 2001, they left an unclear legal path for hundreds of inmates who had already received lengthy or lifelong sentences.

In 2006, the Supreme Court said most of those inmates were essentially out of luck in trying to win early releases. Yet Esteen kept fighting in court to have the newer sentencing laws apply to him. Working with other jailhouse lawyers and appointed counsel from Southern University, he filed appeal after appeal.

The high court reversed itself in January 2018, finding that inmates sentenced under the old laws did deserve second chances in front of state district court judges. The precedent-setting decision was captioned with Esteen’s name.

Esteen did not win immediate release himself. In March 2018, 24th Judicial District Judge Nancy Miller resentenced him to 100 years, citing the original trial judge’s decision to run his sentences consecutively. Since then, he has watched as a steady stream of inmates left Angola because of the case with his name on it.

Although his new sentence was still hefty, it gave him the chance to have his case heard by the Parole Board.

During his trial in 2000, authorities said Esteen moved kilos of cocaine from Houston to New Orleans. They also cited a previous federal drug conviction to have a judge deem him a habitual offender, ramping up his sentence.

Speaking on Tuesday, Jefferson Parish Assistant District Attorney Randy Meyer told board members his office still opposed Esteen's release. “He was the ringleader of a pretty big-time, extensive drug distribution operation,” Meyer said.

Yet the board was won over by arguments that it should look to Esteen’s life since his arrest, not the drug ring that led to his downfall.

Esteen has gained a bachelor’s degree from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, horticulture certificates, and the coveted status as a trusty at Angola. A prison warden described him as a “model” inmate. His attorney, Jack M. Rutherford, emphasized that Esteen served in the Gulf War and was never convicted of a crime of violence.

Speaking via video link from the prison to board members in Baton Rouge, Esteen said he is a changed man. He said he plans to live with his mother upon release and use his horticultural skills to start a coastal restoration nonprofit.

“The person that I am today, I never thought I could be that person,” he said.

Wearing a blue prison shirt, the Avondale native was surrounded by a large group of relatives as he spoke. 

His son, John A. Esteen, said his father had served as an inspiration even during his decades locked up. The son said he became a licensed attorney while trying to follow his father’s example.

“My father hasn’t been there physically for the last two decades, but he has always been in my head,” said the younger Esteen. “I’m in awe of his legal mind. Completely in awe. I’m proud to say I’m my father’s son.”

Esteen’s legal footwork also won the admiration of Parole Board member Keith Jones.

“You have done all the things you’ve done without regards to whether it will please us or not,” Jones said. “You have done everything you could do to earn a grant of your parole.”

Board members Brennan Kelsey and Kenneth Loftin voted with Jones in favor of parole. Rutherford said Esteen will likely be released within days.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.