1 minute read

Solem v. Helm

The Case Of Jerry Helm

Under South Dakota state law, habitual felons with more than three felonies can face life imprisonment without parole. The respondent, Jerry Helm, had six prior felonies to his record: three convictions of third-degree burglary in 1964, 1966, and 1969 as well as one count each of grand larceny in 1973, drunk driving in 1975, and obtaining money under false pretenses in 1972. However, Helm had committed no violent crimes and his seventh conviction for the "no account" check also was nonviolent. The state typically issued a five-year sentence and a $5000 fine for this crime. Nonetheless, the South Dakota district court gave Helm a life sentence, explaining to Helm: "I think you certainly earned this sentence, and certainly proven that you're an habitual criminal, and that would indicate that you're beyond rehabilitation and that the only prudent thing to do is lock you up for the rest of your natural life . . . " Helm began his sentence in 1979.

After serving two years of his sentence, Helm asked the governor of South Dakota to reduce his sentence to one with a definite number of years--his only option for a reduced sentence, but the governor denied his request. Subsequently, Helm petitioned the U.S. District Court for the District of South Dakota, arguing that his sentence amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of his Eighth Amendment right; however, the district court also refused to reduce the sentence citing Rummel v. Estelle (1980). The court did acknowledge that the penalty was extreme. In Rummel v. Estelle, the court in Texas sentenced Rummel to life in prison for his third offense: obtaining $120.75 under false pretenses, because he had two prior felonies. Helm then took his case to the court of appeals, which reversed the district court's decision.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Solem v. Helm - The Origins Of Proportional Punishment, The Case Of Jerry Helm, Mixed Messages, Lingering Problems