CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Supreme Court has reversed a life in prison sentence for a Wyoming County man after finding a recidivism conviction in the case was unconstitutional.

Joe Roger Lane, 45, appealed his November 2017 conviction claiming two of the three crimes he has been convicted of during the past 20 years were not violent and he shouldn’t be sent to prison for the rest of his life under the “three strikes you’re out” law.

Lane was found guilty in 2016 for selling oxycodone in 2015 to a confidential informant. It marked his third felony conviction since 1997. He first conviction was on an unlawful wounding charge and then in 2009 he was convicted for transferring stolen property.

Following the latest conviction, the Wyoming County prosecutor filed a recidivism case against Lane. The initial trial, in early 2017, ended in a hung jury. The second trial found Lane was the same man who committed the other two crimes and he was sentenced by Wyoming Circuit Judge Warren McGraw to spend the rest of his life in prison with a chance for parole after 15 years.

MORE Read majority opinion here

Lane appealed both the drug crime conviction and the recidivism conviction to the High Court. In an opinion handed down Wednesday, the Court upheld the drug conviction but reversed the recidivism conviction and sent the case back to Wyoming County for resentencing.

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Margaret Workman

The opinion, which was authored by Justice Margaret Workman, said the life with mercy sentence violates the proportionality clause of the West Virginia Constitution.

“Despite the State’s argument to the contrary, the facts surrounding the final triggering offense committed by the petitioner, the delivery of four Oxycodone pills, did not involve any actual or threatened violence. There was no testimony or evidence, whatsoever, to support any type of violence or even perceived violence surrounding the controlled buys of Oxycodone,” Workman wrote.

Workman’s opinion also said, “The prior sentences imposed on the petitioner for these prior felonies were not serious penalties so as to justify this Court now imposing a life recidivist sentence.”

Supreme Court Justice Tim Armstead was the only justice in the minority. He issued a dissenting opinion saying the life sentence for Lane was proper and the majority opinion gets into territory that should be decided by the legislature.

MORE Read Armstead’s dissent here

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Tim Armstead

“While this evolution appears motivated by a desire to balance the intent of the recidivist statute with concerns that its effect in certain cases may violate Article III, Section 5 of the West Virginia Constitution, the end result is an inconsistent hodgepodge of legal authority which, for the reasons set forth more fully below, would appear to call for a reevaluation and clarification of the statute by the Legislature,” Armstead, a former House of Delegates speaker, wrote.

Armstead said the the recidivist statute is clear and should be read that way by the Court “without any judicial embroidery.”

Armstead also argued there was a threat of violence in connection with the 2015 drug deal.

“I am particularly inclined to dissent from the majority in light of the fact that I believe there is substantial evidence that situations, such as the one at bar, involving use of
confidential informants to conduct purchases of controlled substances are inherently dangerous and fraught with a serious risk of violence,” Armstead said.

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