(CN) — An attorney for a Mississippi man sentenced to 12 years for possessing a cellphone in jail said Friday he will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, after the state’s high court refused to reconsider the punishment.
Willie Nash, 39, was given the sentence — which his attorney calls the longest one in American history for a contraband cellphone — in August 2018 for possession of a phone while he was in the Newtown County Jail in Decatur, Miss., on a misdemeanor charge.
Nash revealed the smartphone when he handed it to a jailer and asked the correctional officer to charge the device for him. It is unclear how Nash had the phone in jail as it is standard procedure for inmates to be strip-searched during booking.
Because of burglary convictions almost 19 years ago, Nash could have been charged as a habitual offender and subjected to a 15-year sentence that would have to be served in its entirety. The judge at his sentencing hearing told him he should “consider himself fortunate” that he received 12 years.
But Nash’s attorney, Will Bardwell of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said his client isn’t feeling so lucky. On Thursday, a three-judge panel of the Mississippi Supreme Court declined to reconsider its earlier decision to uphold the sentence.
The issue is whether the 12-year sentence is excessive and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, including whether the sentence is disproportionate to the crime.
Writing in a separate concurrence, Justice Leslie D. King noted that Nash likely never knew he was prohibited from having the phone since it was not confiscated during processing. But the court nevertheless found Nash’s sentence just, citing two other cases in Mississippi where inmates received similar sentences.
Bardwell said that while those sentences were similar in length, the circumstances were entirely different, and those inmates were intentionally deceptive in their possession of the contraband.
“In Willie’s case, there is no hint of bad faith,” the attorney said. “I think the thing that’s most outrageous about this case is that Willie did nothing wrong.”
The case may have policy implications as well. Bardwell said the prosecutor’s decision not to charge Nash as a habitual offender implies they didn’t think his crime was very severe.
“If prosecutor’s decisions not to charge people as habitual offenders are effectively subject to being overruled by rogue trial judges, then you have effectively stripped away a crucial weapon in sentencing reform,” he said.
Nash is currently serving his 12-year sentence and could be released by November 2028, according to court records.
The U.S. Supreme Court may not make a decision on whether to hear Nash’s case until its next term in the fall.
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