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.)
In 2015, supporters petitioned then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, for clemency. But the state had a rule that a prisoner had to have served 10 years before clemency could be considered. Noble hadn’t reached that threshold, so his petition was denied.
When Democrat John Bel Edwards was elected governor in 2016, supporters raised the issue again, using Noble’s situation as a chance to challenge the state’s clemency law.
“But for Dan Loeb, we would not even have known, not just about Bernard’s case, but also this administrative rule on clemency,” said Holly Harris, executive director of the D.C.-based Justice Action Network.
Harris and her team lobbied Edwards to change the 10-year rule and consider a reprieve for Noble. Noble didn’t get his reprieve, but earlier this year, the parole board voted to remove the 10-year rule. The change is now waiting to be finalized.
Meanwhile, in 2015, Louisiana lawmakers passed a bill to reduce the maximum sentence for marijuana possession, bringing the state’s laws more in line with the national average. On a fourth conviction, the maximum became eight years, down from 20. But the law did not apply retroactively.
Noble’s lawyer, Jee Park, senior attorney for public policy at the Innocence Project New Orleans, negotiated with the district attorney’s office. In December 2016, the office relented, and Noble was re-sentenced to eight years. Cannizzaro said in an emailed statement that he agreed to the reduction based on the state’s new sentencing guidelines. But he added that Noble had originally been offered a plea deal for a five-year sentence. “He declined, believing he would beat the case at trial,” Cannizzaro said. “He did not."
"We hope that Mr. Noble has been able to resolve his substance abuse issues and will lead a law-abiding life free of further involvement in the criminal justice system,” Cannizzaro added.
Noble applied for parole in June 2017, but his hearing was delayed while waiting for another legislative tweak that made non-violent “habitual offenders” eligible for release to go into effect. In December 2017, Noble again went before the parole board, but a technical glitch kept his lawyers from speaking on his behalf. Noble would have to wait two more months.
In February, the board granted Noble parole on the condition he move back to Missouri, where he was living at the time of his arrest. His lawyers protested, noting that his family, housing, and job were all in New Orleans. For two more months, Noble remained in prison while the parole board deliberated. Ultimately, Noble was allowed to stay in the state.
Now free, he is hoping to repay the support he received by helping young people stay out of trouble or joining an effort to raise the state’s minimum wage.
“I am ready to get to work,” he said. “I didn’t go through all of this just to come home, eat a hot plate of food, and work at McDonalds.”