Derrick L. Harris


A Monticello man will get a new sentencing hearing following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in January that its ban on mandatory life-without-parole sentences on juveniles must be applied retroactively.

Circuit Judge Sam Pope on Friday ordered the Arkansas Department of Correction to return 36-year-old Derrick L. Harris to Drew County for a new hearing.

On December 12, 1996, a Drew County jury convicted Harris, then 16, of capital murder and aggravated robbery in the February 1996 shooting death of Jimmy Gathings, a Monticello used car dealer. Harris was 15 when the crimes occurred.

At Harris’ Drew County Circuit Court trial, two witnesses testified that they saw two males leaving Gathings’ office after hearing what sounded like gunshots. The witnesses identified Harris as one of the two males, and testified that Harris was carrying a gun when they saw him leaving.

Because Harris was convicted of a capital offense, he received a mandatory life sentence without the possibility for parole. The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the conviction and sentence.

However, 15 years later, on June 25, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 (with Justices John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissenting) that it is unconstitutional to impose mandatory life-without-parole sentences on juveniles. The decision was based on two cases, one in Alabama and one in Arkansas. In each case, a 14-year-old received a mandatory life-without-parole prison sentence for murder.

Five months ago, on January 25, the U.S. Supreme Court also ruled that its ban on mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders applied retroactively.

Judges may still sentence juveniles convicted of murder to a life sentence without possibility of parole, but they must take into consideration mitigating circumstances, such as the juvenile’s age and capacity for change.