Between 1964 and 1975, Jerry Helm was tried and convicted of six crimes in South Dakota courts. He had a serious drinking problem. None of the crimes was violent against others.
Then in 1979, Helm pleaded guilty to a seventh offense - passing a bad check - and found himself in prison for the rest of his life with no hope of parole.
Because of his record, he had been sentenced under the state recidivist law, which permitted imposition of the most severe penalty short of death.
Helm felt that his sentence was unfairly severe, but the state court to which he appealed found it justified. So did the federal district court from which he then sought relief on grounds that he was being held in violation of his constitutional rights to protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
To support its rejection of Helm's suit, the federal judge cited a 1980 Supreme Court decision upholding a life sentence for Texan William James Rummel after his conviction for a third nonviolent petty felony.
But then last year, Helm convinced a federal court of appeals that his case was different from Rummel's, in large part because while Rummel could expect to be paroled after 10 or 12 years, Helm had no such hope. The appeals court held that Helm's sentence was so out of proportion to his crime that it was unconstitutional. It told the state to resentence him or let him go.
The state appealed, defending its right to impose harsh sentences on repeat offenders.
On June 28, the Supreme Court ruled in Helm's favor. By a 5-to-4 vote the court held that his sentence was unconstitutional, grossly disproportionate to his crime.
The importance of this decision is twofold:
* It is one of the rare cases, probably only the second in 75 years, in which the court has held a noncapital sentence to be cruel and unusual.
* In addition, the juxtaposition of this case with the 1980 case of Rummel v. Estelle points out clearly the division within the court on questions of individual rights vs. state power.
Rummel was sentenced to life in prison in 1973, after he was convicted of three relatively minor felonies, fraudulent use of a credit card in 1964, passing a forged check in 1969, and obtaining money by false pretenses in 1973. None of his crimes involved more than $125.
But when Rummel came to the Supreme Court arguing that his sentence was cruel , unusual, and unconstitutional, he lost by a vote of 5 to 4.
The court held that state legislatures had the power to impose harsh sentences on repeat offenders. In the Rummel case, Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote that ''one could argue without fear of contradiction by any decision of this court, that for crimes concededly classified . . . as felonies . . . the length of the sentence actually imposed is purely a matter of legislative prerogative.''
The Helm decision Tuesday contradicted Mr. Rehnquist directly.
''No penalty is per se constitutional,'' wrote Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., speaking for the court majority. ''A single day in prison may be unconstitutional in some circumstances.''
The court held that when a judge reviews a sentence challenged as too severe, the judge should consider the sentences of other criminals in that state and the sentences imposed in other states on persons convicted of similar crimes.
Under these guidelines, the majority in Helm's case had no doubt that his sentence was far too severe. Of particular significance in the decision was the fact that Helm had no hope of parole. The state had effectively given up any thought of rehabilitating him in prison.
Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote the minority opinion, joined by Justices Rehnquist, Byron R. White, and Sandra Day O'Connor. The court was ''trespass(ing) gravely on the authority of the state,'' Mr. Burger declared. ''What the court means is that a sentence is unconstitutional if it is more severe than five justices think appropriate.''
''Stealing a horse in Texas may have different consequence and warrant different punishments than stealing a horse in Rhode Island or in Washington, D.C.,'' wrote Burger, explaining that different states do and should be permitted to treat the same crimes differently.
''If we are to have a system of law, not men, Rummel (the earlier 1980 decision) is controlling'' in this situation, wrote Burger. He criticized the majority for abandoning the principle that ''the length of a sentence of imprisonment is a matter of legislative discretion.'' The court, he said, should stay out of the ''basic line-drawing process that is preeminently the province of the legislature.''
''This is judicial usurpation with a vengeance,'' added Burger, predicting that this ruling would flood appellate courts with cases seeking review of all types of sentences.