Life Sentence for $15 Worth of Crack Cocaine?

Do you like law and order? Tough on crime? How about a life Sentence for $15 Worth of Crack Cocaine?

It’s not a joke… Onrae Williams was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP) after a conviction in Charleston, SC for distribution of crack cocaine – about $15 worth.

He had multiple prior convictions for distribution, possession with intent to distribute, and simple possession of marijuana and cocaine. Although they were all “small time” drug offenses, at least two qualified under SC law as “most serious” offenses that allowed the prosecutor to seek life without parole after he was convicted at trial.

The SC Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction on direct appeal in 2008. He then filed a post-conviction relief (PCR) action that was denied by the circuit court. The Court of Appeals also denied his appeal from the PCR case in an unpublished opinion in 2016.

This year, the SC Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, also in an unpublished opinion, and granted Williams a new trial.

SC’s Three Strikes Law is Not Unconstitutional

In 2008, the SC Court of Appeals upheld William’s conviction, holding that SC’s three-strikes law is not “cruel and unusual punishment” even though Williams was convicted of distributing less than half a gram of crack cocaine and the first conviction used to qualify him under the three strikes law happened when he was a juvenile.

The Court recognized that “what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and thus, what violates the Eighth Amendment, is determined by ‘evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.’” The went on to explain that life without the possibility of parole for selling a $15 crack rock is ok because:

  • South Carolina also does not think it is cruel and unusual to sentence juveniles to life without the possibility of parole;
  • South Carolina courts have previously held that “stiff penalties for drug crimes do not violate the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.” (citing cases where the defendants were convicted of trafficking large amounts of drugs…); and
  • The US Supreme Court “has also held a state is justified in punishing a recidivist more severely than it does a first offender.” (Citing Riggs v. California, where the US Supreme Court did not hold that at all – rather, they denied cert in the case, allowing the lower court’s judgment to stand…”

The Court went on to say drugs are bad, saying that studies show there is a nexus between drug use and violence (which may be true, but they didn’t bother to cite to or identify the anonymous studies they referred to).

Effective Assistance of Counsel

In 2016, the Court of Appeals again denied relief to Williams on his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel based on his trial attorney’s failure to fully explain the life without parole (LWOP) statute to him before rejecting a 10-year plea offer.

In an unpublished opinion, they explain the case law that applies to William’s conviction and PCR without bothering to apply that law to William’s case or explain why they are denying his PCR.

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Then, this year, the SC Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and granted Williams a new trial. Although the Supreme Court’s one paragraph, per curiam, unpublished opinion is equally brief and vague, we can gather from it that:

  • Williams’ attorney did not adequately explain the LWOP statute to Williams prior to rejecting the 10-year plea offer;
  • The trial court informed Williams that LWOP was a possibility; but
  • “The colloquy between trial counsel and the trial court did not cure trial counsel’s deficiency.”

The Court found that “there is a reasonable probability that but for counsel’s deficient performance, he would have accepted the original plea offer.”

What Do You Win if You Win Your PCR?

Many people mistakenly believe that PCR is a way to get their conviction thrown out and their case dismissed, or that it is a way to get a time cut.

In most cases, the only remedy available in PCR is for the court to grant a new trial. This means that you go back to square one, your case is remanded to the circuit court for the county that your conviction was in, and you are facing trial on all charges again.

In most cases, this means that, if you win your PCR, you need to either: 1) be ready to win your second trial; or 2) have nothing to lose.

What Did Williams Win in his PCR?

The remedy when a defense lawyer does not communicate or fully explain a plea offer to their client is ordinarily a new trial.

That doesn’t mean he is going to trial – the remedy should be that the defendant is entitled to accept the plea offer he was originally offered.

Ordinarily, however, the courts will not force the solicitor’s office to make the same offer again.  But, prosecutors should and often do in this situation – the courts have determined that he received ineffective assistance of counsel, and a prosecutor’s job is to seek justice, not get convictions or put people behind bars for as long as possible.

On the other hand, if the prosecutor decides to ignore the Supreme Court’s finding that Williams was denied effective assistance of counsel, he can go to trial again. He was already sentenced to life without parole, what does he have to lose?

Criminal Defense and PCR Lawyer in Charleston, SC

If you believe that you have grounds for post-conviction relief (PCR) in SC, contact Charleston criminal defense attorney Grant B. Smaldone now for a free consultation and review of your case by calling at (843) 808-2100 or by filling out our online contact form.