Seven Years Behind Bars for Two Joints — And Now He’s Free
Bernard Noble, whose case became a symbol of harsh drug laws, walks out of a Louisiana prison.
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Bernard Noble, who became a national symbol of harsh drug laws after he was sentenced to 13 years of hard labor for carrying about two joints worth of marijuana, was released from prison early Thursday morning.
Noble, 51, was freed on parole after his lawyer and a team of advocates — including billionaire New York hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb — spent years pressing courts, governors, and lawmakers to reverse the long sentence. He ultimately served seven years in prison.
“I really felt special, seeing my family and everyone waiting for me,” Noble told The Marshall Project by phone after he walked out of Bossier Parish Medium Security Prison, where his mother, sister, and other family members awaited his release.
“I cried a lot of times in prison silently because you can’t do it out loud in a treacherous place like that. But I always said, ‘one day it’s gonna get better,’ ” he said.
His freedom marked the end of a convoluted and high-profile legal journey that began in 2010, when he was arrested while biking in New Orleans, where he was visiting family. Police said they found about three grams of marijuana in his possession.
Noble was sentenced in 2011 under what were then some of the toughest drug laws and sentencing practices in the country. Because he had been convicted of having small amounts of cocaine and marijuana multiple times in the past, Noble was sentenced to 13 years of hard labor, without the possibility of parole, under Louisiana’s “habitual offender” law.
Amid growing unease over the nation’s high incarceration rate, the case became a rallying cry for revising tough drug laws dating to the 1980s and 90s. Noble’s sentence seemed especially unfair when other states were legalizing pot for medical and personal use.
“There is plenty of data and evidence that suggests harsh drug sentences are not effective, and we can argue those talking points until we are blue in the face, but most people need to see flesh and blood,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an organization advocating for more lenient sentencing.
Media including Newsweek, VICE, and The Huffington Post (as well as marijuana-centric websites such as HERB and The Cannabist) wrote about his story. His mother, Elnora Noble, collected nearly 75,000 signatures on a Change.org petition for his clemency. People took to Twitter to call on then-President Barack Obama to issue a pardon, using the hashtag #freebernardnoble. (A federal pardon would not have helped, however, because the case was in state courts.)
After Noble was convicted, two separate district court judges attempted to reduce his sentence to five years, citing his lack of a violent record and the fact that he supported seven children. But Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro opposed the change and prevailed in state Supreme Court.
Noble languished behind bars.
The case eventually caught the attention of Loeb, a frequent donor to criminal justice reform efforts whose interest helped rally national advocates. (Full disclosure: The Margaret and Daniel Loeb — Third Point Foundation is a donor to The Marshall Project.)