- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 21, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Charlie Blunt of Jackson is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for stealing a pickup.

Johnny Coleman of Rankin County is serving a life sentence for being a peeping tom.

Both men are among 115 active Mississippi Department of Corrections inmates serving habitual life sentences for nonviolent crimes.

Mississippi has two habitual offenders laws, one of which can lead to life in prison without parole if a person is convicted of any felony after two previous convictions - with one being for a violent offense - and having been sentenced to serve at least one year in prison on each of the prior convictions. The lesser law leads to a maximum sentence with parole.

One of the final cases the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on in June involved the federal habitual offender law, often referred to as the “three-strikes law.”

The high court ruled the federal law unconstitutionally vague as to what counts as a violent crime under the federal three-strike law.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling doesn’t impact Mississippi or other states’ three-strikes or habitual offender laws, although some legal experts say it could lead to more challenges to convictions and sentencing under habitual offenders laws.

“We try to use those things judicially,” said District Attorney Ronnie Harper of Natchez, a board member of the Mississippi Prosecutors Association.

Harper said someone may be eligible for habitual offender status but in most cases is allowed to plead guilty as a non-habitual offender.

Sometimes people get upset when they see or hear of a case where a person has been sentenced as a habitual offender for a seemingly minor offense, but it has been his experience that there is more than meets the eye, Harper said.

“This person may have had a lot more problems; he or she may have had multiple counts and pleaded to one count, Harper said.

Harper said it’s up to a judge to decide whether to find a person is a habitual offender. After a person is convicted, a judge will conduct a hearing to determine whether he or she will be sentenced as a habitual offender.

“We hear about the ones that sound awful, but there are whole lot more where it is deserved,” Harper said of those sentenced as habitual offenders.

Harper said he has had very few cases in which offenders were sentenced to life as habitual offenders for crimes not normally considered violent.

Blunt was sentenced to life in prison as a habitual offender for stealing a pickup on May 26, 2010, from CN North America Railroad in Jackson.

Blunt had two previous convictions, both in the 1990s. One for simple assault on a law enforcement officer in 1993 and the other for possession of cocaine in 1996. Prosecutors said the simple assault was initially an aggravated assault charge that was pleaded down to simple assault.

Coleman, previously convicted of attempted rape, burglary and voyeurism, was sentenced in Rankin County Circuit Court for conviction of a 1998 voyeurism charge. The Mississippi Court of Appeal ruled in 2000 that the gravity of Coleman’s convictions prior to the incident at hand is such that a strict sentence is justified.

Jennifer Riley Collins, executive director of the Mississippi American Civil Liberties Union, said the organization doesn’t believe Mississippi’s big habitual offender enhancement law is vulnerable to a vagueness challenge in the same way the federal law was.

“Its provisions are, for the most part, quite clear (especially so now that HB 585 defined ‘crime of violence’ - essentially the issue in … the federal case),” Riley-Collins said. “With regard to proportionality challenges to the big habitual offender enhancement, the Mississippi Supreme Court has ruled that any sentence within statutory limits of the law is not subject to proportionality review.”

The federal law, which is part of the Armed Career Criminals Act, provided enhanced sentences for a third violent felony, but it included qualifying crimes, such as arson, burglary and extortion. The law also had a residual clause that allowed a person to be charged as a habitual offender for conduct that might present a serious potential risk or physical injury to another.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the majority opinion that the law was unconstitutionally vague because there was no way to determine the level of risk of physical harm posed by a crime and no way to determine what level of risk was necessary for a crime to be a violent crime.

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Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, https://www.clarionledger.com

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