Sunday, March 26, 2017

White Boy Rick movie filming begins; Rick Wershe waits for Parole Board Decision

Rick Wershe still hasn’t heard from the Michigan Parole Board on whether they will consider a parole from his life sentence in a non-violent drug case. Meanwhile, the cameras are rolling on a film based on his story.

They didn’t have time to get to his case at their monthly meeting. That’s the story coming from the Michigan Parole Board, which was supposed to consider moving forward on the process of granting Richard J. Wershe, Jr. parole after 29 years in prison for a non-violent drug crime committed when he was a teenager.

They were supposed to consider the Wershe case at the March 10th meeting of the Michigan Parole Board. But gosh darn it all, they just ran out of time, they say. So, they’ll take it up next month at their monthly meeting on April 14th.

Telling it like it is, the Parole Board is under pending court pressure because Wershe has been treated differently than every other Michigan inmate charged with a non-violent drug crime as a juvenile. Every one of them has been given parole consideration—except Rick Wershe. That’s cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Richard J. Wershe, Jr. (Photo: Michigan Dept. of Corrections)

Wershe has several cases against the State of Michigan cooking in federal courts.

In addition, media interest in his case has been growing, aided in no small part by the fact Hollywood has discovered the Rick Wershe story and they are making a movie about it.

But appearances count in politics and public agencies and the Michigan Parole Board don't want to appear to be succumbing to pressure. So…Rick Wershe continues to wait to hear about a possible parole.


They love Rick Wershe in Cleveland. More specifically, the Greater Cleveland Film Commission and a growing community of film production professionals in Cleveland love Rick Wershe because the movie about him is being filmed there. Production is now underway. Why Cleveland? Why not Detroit, where the story occurred?

It's all about money. States vie for movie projects these days with tax incentives and financial rebates.The State of Ohio and the City of Cleveland are working to attract Hollywood feature productions through financial incentives for the filmmakers. 

The State of Michigan, in its wisdom, decided not to compete in the film production arena. 

In the summer of 2015, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill to end Michigan’s incentive program for film productions. The program was bringing in about $225 million annually in Michigan spending by movie companies. Apparently, that was chump change to Lansing. The state opted instead to give billions of dollars in tax incentives to the Big Three automakers to please, please, please build new factories in Michigan and, oh please, oh pretty please, don’t take the money, create temporary jobs and later replace the human workers with robots.

And there’s no point talking about the millions upon millions in tax incentives heaped on billionaire pro sports team owners to build yet another new stadium or arena where they can suck up even more millions from the entertainment-starved locals. But I digress.

The bottom line, to use an overworked phrase, is Cleveland and Ohio offered a 30% incentive to shoot the film there. Detroit and Michigan offered 2%. You don't have to be a math whiz to figure out where the movie people decided to take their business. 

Ivan Schwarz, president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission, says Rick Wershe has, in a way, helped the economy of his city.

"Millions of dollars are going to be spent in our state, creating jobs and creating economic development for a city that really needs it,” Schwarz told me. “It’s sort of ironic that his War on Drugs story turns out to be an economic boon for the film industry in Ohio.”

Schwarz says Ohio, like several other states, is actively courting Hollywood to shoot movies in their cities and countryside and, he argues, giving the production companies tax and rebate packages pays dividends.

"(The White Boy Rick film has) a significant budget with significant talent that is shooting in this state and creating real jobs and putting real food on people’s tables," Schwarz says. "Really, that’s what it’s about. The trickle down is huge.”

Alas, political pooh-bahs of Michigan don’t see it that way, so the cameras are rolling in Cleveland.

Matthew McConaughey (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Matthew McConaughey has the starring role in the movie as Rick Wershe’s father, Richard Wershe, Sr.

Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie (Photos: Wikimedia Commons)

Veteran actor Bruce Dern will play the part of Rick Wershe’s grandfather and actress Piper Laurie has the role of his grandmother. Wershe’s father and grandparents are deceased.

Others in the cast include Rory Cochrane and Jennifer Jason Leigh as FBI agents.

Rory Cochrane and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Photos: Wikimedia Commons)

Cochrane was in Argo, Dazed and Confused and Black Mass. Jennifer Jason Leigh received an Oscar nomination for her role in The Hateful Eight. Early in her career she appeared in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Leigh is known to have been in contact recently with retired FBI agents who were assigned to Detroit during the time Rick Wershe was a paid teen informant. She’s made an effort to research the role, asking questions that will help her bring authenticity to the screen.

R.J. Cyler (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

R.J. Cyler, the Blue Power Ranger in the Power Rangers movie, recently signed to play the role of Rudell "Boo" Curry, the youngest brother of the family drug gang Rick Wershe infiltrated and informed on for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Rick Wershe was recruited by the FBI to become a secret informant because he was known and trusted by the Curry Brothers, a cocaine gang with political connection that had attracted the attention of federal investigators.

Wershe had a most unusual visitor recently. Matthew McConaughey, the actor, spent close to five hours visiting with Wershe at the Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee, where he is serving his prison term.

McConaughey was accompanied by Scott Franklin, the movie’s producer and Yann Demange, the director.

Wershe says it was a get-acquainted visit. They talked and laughed and shared personal stories. They are about the same age but they are, as Wershe observes, from two different worlds. He was impressed with McConaughey’s interest in playing the role and he marveled that the Hollywood star was “super down to earth.”

“It made me feel great about him playing my father,” Wershe told me. “Funny thing is, me and my Dad always loved him as an actor. I only wish I could tell him that Matthew is playing him, but who knows? Maybe he’s looking down from up there.”

What about the other inmates? How did they feel about a movie star visiting Oaks prison?

“There was a buzz, but nothing big,” Wershe says. “They just thought it was cool that he took the time to come see me.”

Wershe appreciated the response of the prison staff, too. He says everyone behaved professionally and no one pestered McConaughey for autographs or posed pictures.

He doesn’t say so, but you can tell Rick Wershe is impressed and moved by all of this high-wattage attention. But the most important attention of all will come from the Parole Board, presumably next month.


Full disclosure: I was hired early in the movie production process by Studio 8, the outfit making the White Boy Rick film, to advise one of the script writers about factual matters regarding Detroit, the Detroit Police Department, city politics and the like. I did not get involved in any of the script writing. My brief role was what might be called an historical adviser.

Currently I am hard at work on a non-fiction book about the Rick Wershe saga and how it fit in to the War on Drugs in the 1980s. There were national and international forces and events that had an effect on what happened to Rick Wershe. I intend to tell that tale.


Sunday, March 12, 2017

For Rick Wershe, the Waiting Has to be Hard

For Rick Wershe, these have to be hard days. There is genuine cause for optimism that his lifelong prison nightmare may have an end in sight. But to the “corrections” system he is still nothing more than No. 192034. He is reminded of it every day.

The Michigan Parole Board met Friday and considered the possibility of parole for some state prison inmates. One of them was Richard, J. Wershe, Jr., known in countless media reports over the years as White Boy Rick. We think they made a decision, but it hasn’t been announced. The Parole Board observes bureaucratic protocols and notifies each of the inmates who was up for parole consideration at this month’s board meeting, and apparently, it’s going to be up to Wershe to let his lawyer, family, friends and many supporters know what the Parole Board decided. Rick was told last week that they would tell him when they feel like it. We don’t know if that’s the Parole Board’s attitude or the interpretation of some hard-ass prison guard. All we know is the waiting game continues.

If the Parole Board votes to consider Wershe for parole, the next step will be a notice of a public hearing where witnesses get to testify whether he should or shouldn't be granted parole. A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections has stated this is likely to occur in early June, which happens to be just days before an important court date in Wershe's battle for parole.

Rick Wershe with some of the art work he has done while in prison.

After 29 years in prison for a non-violent drug offense, Rick Wershe’s case is suddenly on the fast track, at least in state prison terms.

His lawyers have been fighting the State of Michigan in a lawsuit in federal court, claiming Michigan has violated his civil rights by treating him differently than every other prisoner similarly charged, convicted and incarcerated. That battle has been dragging on for several years and it was due on the radar again on March 16th in Cincinnati, Ohio before the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. But that court appearance has been postponed.

Wershe’s lawyer, Ralph Musilli, and a lawyer from the Michigan Attorney General’s Office, representing the Michigan Parole Board, were to appear before a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals and participate in what are known as oral arguments. It’s more about questions-and-answers than arguments. Both sides have submitted detailed written arguments about prevailing case law and if this now-postponed session goes forward the judges will ask a lot of questions.The Court of Appeals took note of the Parole Board's movement on Wershe's possible parole and contacted the lawyers and asked if it makes sense to "hold in abeyance" the oral arguments. All parties agreed that makes sense.

The case started in federal court in Grand Rapids because Wershe is in prison on the western side of the state and the Grand Rapids federal court covers that territory.

The rights lawsuit argues it is a violation of the Eight Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment to make every prisoner charged with a nonviolent drug crime as a juvenile eligible for parole except Richard Wershe. That’s treating him differently than everyone else and that is unusual punishment.

The judge on the case has balked at hearing Wershe’s case from day one. Many judges dislike hearing prisoner rights cases, and Grand Rapids U.S. District Judge Gordon Quist is apparently one of them. If the appellate court decides the Wershe argument has merit, they can turn the heat up on the Grand Rapids case.

In December, however, Wershe’s lawyers added fuel to the legal fire. Attorney Paul Louisell, one of Musilli’s partners, filed a motion for a writ of habeas corpus with the federal court in Detroit. U.S. District Judge George Steeh agreed to consider the case, a remarkable decision in light of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that make it difficult to prevail in a habeas corpus (Latin for “you have the body) action. This motion is scheduled to be discussed in court in mid-June.

Ralph Musilli and Paul Louisell, Rick Wershe's attorneys

The onus is now on the State of Michigan to explain why Wershe hasn’t been afforded a meaningful opportunity for parole. His only real parole consideration was in 2003 and that was a kangaroo court sham hearing that appeared rigged to ensure Wershe remained in prison. False and conflicting testimony was not questioned or challenged by the Michigan Parole Board in 2003. Wershe has been up for parole consideration roughly every five years but they keep “flopping” him with a terse “no interest” response to the issue of releasing Wershe. As Musilli puts it, they’ve been extending Wershe’s life sentence five years at a time.

Less than a week after the filing of the habeas corpus motion in mid-December, the Parole Board announced it was moving up Wershe’s next scheduled parole review up by nearly a year.

Regardless of what the Parole Board does, the habeas corpus action will likely move forward for an important reason for Wershe. If the Detroit federal judge agrees with Wershe's lawyers, he could order that Wershe be re-sentenced as Michigan has done for hundreds of other inmates in light of various court rulings about sentencing juveniles to long prison terms for non-violent offenses. Wershe was 17 when he was arrested, 18 when he was sentenced to life in prison.
If he is re-sentenced, and his trial judge, Dana Hathaway of Wayne County Circuit Court has indicated a belief that he should be re-sentenced, that will mean, in effect, he's over-served time behind bars and he won't be subject to several years of probation and supervision. That would be a big burden off Wershe's shoulders. So the habeas corpus battle has some important stakes for Wershe regardless of what the Parole Board does with his case.

Some hooray-for-me self-promoters in the media like to think their coverage of the Wershe story is responsible for the sudden change in his parole status. The truth is more diffuse and doesn't lend itself to such self-congratulation. 

The increased media interest in the White Boy Rick story; including this blog, including a Hollywood movie based loosely on his story, the continued interest of Wershe’s many citizen supporters and the relentless efforts of his lifelong friend, Dave Majkowski, who manages the Free Rick Wershe Facebook page; all of these things have added to keeping the spotlight on this case of a man who is a political prisoner.

For those who haven’t read the Informant America blog posts over the past two years, the evidence is pretty clear that Wershe IS a political prisoner. His real sin is that he told on the wrong people. As a teen, Wershe was a paid FBI informant. He told the FBI about payoffs and criminal influence over powerful people in the corrupt Detroit/Wayne County political machine. The shady politicians, including the late Gil Hill, ex-Homicide top cop and later City Council President, took a lot of heat from the FBI as a result of Wershe’s informant work. They got even by working long and hard to keep Wershe in prison for life. At long last, that may be changing.

Speaking of the Informant America blog, regular readers might be interested to know this coming week marks two years’ worth of regular blog posts on the amazing story of Richard J. Wershe, Jr.—White Boy Rick. The Informant America blog has been viewed over 223,000 times by people interested in the Wershe story. Not bad for a single-subject Internet blog site. The interest of readers like you has played a tangible part in keeping the heat on a state and local criminal “justice” system that is rotten to the core.

Informant America has revealed a lot, but not all, about the Rick Wershe saga. There are things I haven’t reported or made public, yet.

As an offshoot of this blog I’ve been writing a non-fiction book about how Rick’s story typifies many of the things that are horribly, horribly wrong with this nation’s so-called War on Drugs. I’ve battled for months using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain the true story of Richard J. Wershe from the files of the federal, state and local governments. It’s a convoluted, sordid and disgraceful tale with no heroes. And the federal government is fighting the release of certain file information related to Wershe that must be, um, uh, unpleasant - for the government. There are some cans of worms they would rather not have opened. People are shocked to learn a 14-year old was recruited to do dangerous undercover work in the War on Drugs. But there are other dirty secrets about the Wershe story the government is fighting to keep under wraps. 

The book will expose the truth about the trillion-dollar national fiasco we call the War on Drugs and White Boy Rick’s part in it. No, there isn't a publication date yet. Stay tuned.    

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Rick Wershe’s Conversation with a Movie Star

On Valentine’s Day Rick Wershe was interviewed by the chair of the Michigan Parole Board as part of the process required to grant him parole after 29 years in prison for a nonviolent drug crime. Wershe and his lawyer believe the interview went well. The results will be presented to the full board at its next meeting, the second Friday in March. Rick Wershe had another pleasant experience recently during a phone call. Here’s what happened.

People who have been following the saga of Richard Wershe, Jr. know Hollywood has taken an interest in using his story to develop a movie about White Boy Rick, the name the police and news media gave him after he was arrested.

Filming begins next month in Detroit with additional production in Ohio. The Buckeye State figures into the picture strictly for tax reasons. States compete intensely for motion picture production projects by offering tax incentives. Apparently, Ohio gave the producers of the film an attractive package, so some scenes will be shot there instead of Detroit or Hollywood.

Wershe is pleased that Hollywood wants to tell his story, or at least part of it. A single movie couldn't possibly tell his complete life story. He’s had enough adventures and mis-adventures for a series of movies. Wershe is helping the producers through regular phone calls from prison.

In one recent phone call with Scott Franklin (Noah, Black Swan, The Wrestler) the producer of the White Boy Rick film, Franklin said there was someone in his office he would like to put on the phone with Rick. Movie star Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyer’s Club, Magic Mike, Failure to Launch) came on the line.

Actor Matthew McConaughey-he will play the role of Rick Wershe's father, Richard Wershe, Sr., in a film due out next January. (Photo-Wikimedia Commons)

“He was a real nice guy, “Wershe tells me. “We talked about how I do my time (in prison). I told him, day by day. I said I have good days and bad days.”

Wershe says they also talked about his late father. McConaughey is starring in the film as Rick’s father, Richard Wershe, Sr. “We talked a little about my Dad, nothing specific,” Wershe recalls. “I just told him my Dad loved him as an actor. The senior Wershe passed away in 2014, a victim of cancer.

Richard J. Wershe, Sr. in a photo from around 2012

Wershe says other media accounts stating that McConaughey offered him a job after he gets out of prison are inaccurate. He says Scott Silver, one of the screenplay writers on the film, offered to pay a year’s rent for Rick wherever he wants to live or he could live with Silver and his family in New York. Silver’s offer was in a letter of support for Wershe submitted to the Michigan Parole Board as part of the campaign to win a parole.

Wershe is flattered by all of this but he says his goal is to try to have a normal life, whatever that this, after nearly three decades—his entire adult life—behind bars. The first thing he wants to do is visit the graves of his father, and his grandfather and grandmother. Roman Wershe passed away in 1985. Vera Wershe passed away in 1988.

Rick Wershe, seated at the right. His grandfather, Roman Wershe, is on the left. His friend Dave Majkowski is in the center.

In the meantime, Wershe says, “I’m just waiting to see what happens next.” 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

SPECIAL UPDATE: Rick Wershe’s Parole Interview ‘Went Well’

Over 3,000 readers have checked out Sunday’s blog post about Rick Wershe’s pending parole interview. This blog is normally updated every other Sunday. It is foolish and perhaps frustrating to wait until Feb. 26th to report on what happened today - February 14th - at Wershe's parole interview. Here is a summary based on the impressions of Ralph Musilli, Wershe’s attorney, who sat in on the interview.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017 was a good day for a guy who hasn’t had many good days in the last 29 years.

Richard J. Wershe, Jr. was interviewed for about 45 minutes by the chair of the Michigan Parole Board for a possible parole from his life sentence. He was sentenced at age 18 for an arrest when he was 17. It was a non-violent drug conviction but he was sent to prison for life under a draconian state law that has since been discarded. Every other Michigan prison inmate charged similarly as a juvenile drug offender under that law has had their case reviewed and most have been released from prison.

Rick Wershe, Jr. in court in Detroit in September, 2015 (Photo: Brian Kauffman, Detroit Free Press)

Wershe’s lawyers have been fighting in the federal courts against his continued imprisonment, arguing his civil rights have been violated because he’s been treated differently from every other state prison inmate similarly charged.

Those federal cases are heating up and the State of Michigan is on the hook to explain, in court, why they are treating Wershe in a different manner than all other inmates. The State of Michigan doesn’t have a good answer for that, thus Wershe’s consideration for parole has received priority interest by “the system.”

Wershe was interviewed first thing Tuesday morning via remote video conferencing hookup by Michael Eagen, chair of the Michigan Parole Board. Eagen was in Lansing. Wershe was at the Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee, where he is serving his prison term. There were several inmate interviews scheduled with Wershe's, but Eagen did only one of them; Richard Wershe's. Another member of the Parole Board handled all the others.

“It went very well,” Ralph Musilli, Wershe’s attorney, said. “He (Wershe) was very candid. He answered all his questions.”

Ralph Musilli-Rick Wershe's attorney. He sat in on Wershe's parole interview.

Eagen didn’t ask any trick questions. It was stuff that was expected. He asked Wershe about his arrest, what happened, how long he had been dealing drugs and how much money he made.

Rick Wershe has always admitted he did wrong. He’s always admitted he was wrong to try to become a big-time drug dealer. But the argument has been that Wershe has been treated unfairly.

He was recruited by the FBI at age 14 to become an informant against a politically-connected drug gang because he knew some of the leaders. Unlike many snitches who cooperate to get leniency on a drug bust, Wershe was taught the drug trade by members of Detroit’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF). 

When Wershe got the evidence the Feds needed against the Johnnie Curry drug gang, the task force kicked Wershe to the curb, so to speak. They used him, then dumped him.

Cast adrift, with no parental supervision to speak of, Wershe turned to the only trade he knew; slinging dope. It was a bad decision and he’s paid for it by spending his entire life behind bars while cold-blooded hitmen who murdered numerous people in the drug trade have been arrested, tried, sentenced and released in the time Wershe has remained in prison for his non-violent drug offense. 

As the Informant America blog has documented over the past two years, Wershe’s real crime was that he informed on drug-related corruption in the Detroit/Wayne County criminal justice system. He told on the wrong people and they have waged a vendetta against him ever since. The corrupt Detroit/Wayne Criminal Justice system has never forgiven Wershe for telling the FBI the truth about them.

Wershe kept helping the Feds even after he went to prison. He helped launch an FBI undercover sting operation that resulted in the conviction of several police officers and the brother-in-law of then-Mayor Coleman Young of Detroit. Young and his brother-in-law, Willie Volsan, are both deceased.

As a result of his FBI cooperation, Wershe’s life was in danger so he was put in the federal Witness Security program, or WitSec, a special prison system for convicts who help make important criminal cases. 

While he was in WitSec in Florida, Wershe made another bad decision. He got wind of a used-car arrangement on the outside. Wershe figured it was a good way to help his mother and sister get a car. It turned out to be a scam and Wershe got busted and was charged. He pled guilty and was sentenced for a new crime and evicted from the WitSec program and returned to the Michigan prison system.

Eagen asked Wershe about this in the interview. Wershe explained what happened and Musilli interjected, noting the Florida prosecutor had threatened to prosecute Rick’s mother and sister if he tried to go to trial. Arguably, Wershe was coerced in to pleading guilty. His court-appointed Florida lawyer had no experience in criminal cases. He was there to fulfill a legal requirement for sentencing...and to collect a fee from the court.

Wershe's plea agreement in Florida (shown above in a redacted version) plainly states the prosecutor will NOT file charges against his mother and sister if he agrees to plead "on the nose" as charged to racketeering, which guaranteed he would get more prison time. As Wershe saw it, he didn't have much choice. He was already doing time and he didn't want his mother and sister charged and tried, so he agreed to the "deal." A lawyer with criminal case experience would have told him to reject the plea agreement because the State of Florida didn't really have a case against his mother and sister. It was a scare tactic and it worked. Most of the other defendants were charged with a minor offense and got probation. The Florida prosecutor admitted to a local newspaper reporter that Wershe was a "fringe" player in the scheme, yet he got a heavy sentence after Michigan officials intervened.

Moreover, Florida charged Wershe with racketeering when the rest of the co-conspirators were essentially charged with possession of stolen property. Most of the others in the case were given probation and restitution. Wershe was given a five-year sentence to be served consecutively with his life prison term in Michigan. 

In other words, if he gets paroled in Michigan, he may still have to do five years in a Florida prison. But Wershe and his lawyers are fighting one battle at a time.

In the Florida case, there are suspicions Michigan officials urged the Florida Attorney General’s office to “throw the book” at Wershe as part of the continuing vendetta against him for helping the FBI prosecute public corruption in Detroit and Wayne County. On its face, the case against Wershe in Florida is totally out of sync with all of the other defendants charged in that case.

The Florida Attorney General brought charges against Wershe in Martin County. Wershe had never been to Martin County, but it is known as perhaps the harshest criminal punishment court in the State of Florida. When Wershe was brought to Martin County for arraignment and he told the county jail matrons why he was there, they told him, “Honey, they brought you here to this county because they want to hang your ass.” They meant that figuratively, but the jail matrons were being straight with him about harsh justice being the norm in their county. The Florida case is another battle for another day. For now, the focus is on Michigan.

Eagen told Wershe he would make his report to the full Parole Board at their next meeting, the second Friday in March. That’s March 10th. If the full board votes to consider parole, notice will be sent to the Wayne County Prosecutor and Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Dana Hathaway, the judge who presides over Wershe’s drug conviction. The prosecutor and judge have 30 days to respond.

The next step would be 30-day notice of a public hearing followed by a public hearing, perhaps in early June. The Parole Board could decide at that session whether to grant parole to Richard J. Wershe, one of their most notorious inmates and a potential poster child for everything that's wrong with the War on Drugs.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A crucial week for Rick Wershe, Jr. in his struggle for freedom

Richard J. Wershe, Jr. is scheduled for an interview with the chair of the Michigan Parole Board on Tuesday. It is a milestone in his quest to win parole after 29 years in prison for a non-violent drug conviction. Wershe is believed to be the longest serving inmate convicted of a drug crime as a teenager.

Come Tuesday morning, Rick Wershe’s stomach is going to be in knots. It’s guaranteed. He is scheduled to be interviewed by Michael Eagen, the chair of the Michigan Parole Board as a key step toward a possible parole from his life prison sentence.

Richard J. Wershe, Jr. -  Valentine's Day 2017 is a critical day in his life. (Photo: David Coates-Detroit News)

Wershe is one of the most controversial inmates in the Michigan Corrections system. He is a political prisoner and everyone knows it. It’s political because the Detroit/Wayne County political machine has done everything in its power to keep him imprisoned for telling the FBI about drug corruption among the politically-connected. The Informant America blog has documented this vendetta in considerable detail over the last two years.

The “system” is doing its best to make this parole evaluation process for Wershe appear to be business-as-usual. It’s anything but business as usual.

Wershe was due for parole consideration next December. That changed when his lawyers filed a second federal court action—a habeas corpus motion. It requires the State of Michigan to explain to a judge why this inmate has not been given a meaningful and fair chance for parole, when virtually everyone else in Michigan similarly tried and convicted has had their sentence reduced and most have been released from custody.

Less than a week after the habeas corpus (“you have the body” in Latin) motion was filed, the Michigan Parole Board announced they were moving up Wershe’s parole consideration by well over half a year.

Over the holidays Wershe watched in amazement as staffers in the Michigan Department of Corrections processed paperwork associated with his possible parole—a task they ordinarily would postpone until after the Christmas/New Year’s break.

The Parole Board announced one of its members—Sonia Amos-Warchok—would interview Wershe in behalf of the entire board in mid-February. This is a routine part of the process. One board member normally conducts a full interview with an inmate and reports back to the rest of the board.

What wasn’t routine in this case is that shortly after the first of the year, Michael Eagen, the head of the Parole Board, announced he was going to do the interview personally, instead of Amos-Warchok. There was no explanation of why the chair of the Parole Board decided to handle the Wershe interview himself.

But we know the clock is ticking on the habeas corpus motion, in which the onus is on the State of Michigan to come to court with compelling and convincing evidence why they have NOT given Wershe a fair shot at parole.

And there’s this: Wershe has another federal lawsuit in the hopper, one that was filed several years ago, claiming his civil rights have been violated. The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bars cruel and unusual punishment. The fact Wershe has been denied parole when everyone else in Michigan similarly charged, convicted and incarcerated has been given that opportunity is unusual punishment. He’s been treated differently than every other prisoner. There’s a strong argument to be made that that is unusual punishment.

Interestingly, that case is now bubbling in the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The federal judge on that case, Gordon Quist of Grand Rapids, has sat on Wershe’s civil rights case after initially trying to dismiss it. The Court of Appeals essentially told Quist, not so fast. Do some inquiry. But judges hate to be told what to do by appellate courts. Quist got a magistrate in his courthouse to conclude he’s right in doing nothing. The Court of Appeals disagrees. The case is moving forward—at the appeals court level.

The end result is that the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered oral arguments in the Wershe case in Cincinnati in mid-March. This seldom happens in such cases in modern times. Oral arguments is a misleading term. It’s more of a session where a three-judge panel gets to ask questions of attorneys on both sides. It’s another courtroom where some barrister from the Michigan Attorney General’s office is going to have to answer some hard questions. Questions such as, what the hell are you people doing to this guy? And why?

It all boils down to the State of Michigan moving as quickly as possible on the Rick Wershe case in the face of some potentially unpleasant courtroom encounters, while striving to make it look like business-as-usual.

As for Tuesday’s interview, it won’t be face to face. It will be conducted via video conferencing hookup. Eagen will be in a conference room at the Department of Corrections in Lansing while Rick will remain at the Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee, where he is imprisoned. Wershe is allowed to have one “friend” or associate with him. That’s going to be Ralph Musilli, his longtime attorney.

Musilli will not be allowed to talk or argue Wershe’s case. This is not that kind of session. Eagen will question Wershe one-to-one over the video link. He will want to know if Wershe has been “rehabilitated” and if he has people on the outside who will help him transition back in to mainstream society.

The essential question the Parole Board wants answered is this: Is Richard J. Wershe, Jr. a good “risk” for parole? Can he be released as a free man without any more run-ins with the law? Here’s a clue: he only has this one conviction. He is not a “repeat offender.”

Wershe should pass this test with flying colors. The staff at the Oaks Correctional Facility say Wershe would qualify as a “model prisoner” if there were such a thing. He is well-liked by the staff at the prison. He’s not a trouble-maker. Never has been.

If Eagen likes what he hears, he will report back to the full board at their next meeting and they will vote on whether to consider Rick Wershe for parole. If the answer is “yes” they will notify the Wayne County Prosecutor and Wershe’s drug-case judge that he is up for parole. If the prosecutor and judge don’t object, there will be a public hearing. In the cases of some violent convicts, victims sometimes show up at a public hearing to plead for denial of parole. In this case, an impressive number of people are ready to testify in Wershe’s behalf if there is a public hearing.

After 29 years in prison for a non-violent drug conviction handed down when he was a teenager, Rick Wershe may be granted parole sometime this spring.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

More good news for Rick—this time it’s about his civil rights lawsuit

For four long years, Rick Wershe, Jr.’s lawyer has been battling for his civil rights against cruel and unusual punishment in a slow-moving lawsuit before a Grand Rapids federal judge. The judge threw the case out, but attorney Ralph Musilli appealed to the 6th U.S. Court of Appeals and they essentially told the Grand Rapids judge, not so fast. This past week the appeals court advanced the case by scheduling it for oral arguments next month.

In the painfully slow game that is Rick Wershe’s fight for his civil rights, last week the Wershe team made a gain of 20 yards. The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has signaled, through its orders, that it is curious about what the hell the State of Michigan is doing to Prisoner # 192034, otherwise known as Richard J. Wershe, Jr.

In addition, there's been another development in Rick's favor regarding the Michigan Parole Board. Consider that another five-yard gain. More on that in a moment.

Under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, all of us are entitled to a right against cruel and unusual punishment. This means, among other things, that among prison inmates, everyone must be treated equally. To do otherwise is unusual, and therefore, cruel punishment.

The appeals court appears to be curious enough about how Wershe has been treated to schedule oral arguments. In truth, it’s more of a question-and-answer session where a three-judge panel considering the case asks questions of the lawyers for both sides. The barristers have already submitted voluminous written arguments including a mind-numbing recitation of case law that only a judge could love.

Oral arguments in the appeals courts are also unusual these days. “In 2011, only one quarter of all federal appeals were orally argued, down from nearly two-thirds in the early 1980s, and the time allotted in most circuits was limited to fifteen minutes or less,” according to an article in The Journal of Appellate Practice and Process. (If you’re wondering where the hell I come up with this stuff, well, I sometimes wonder myself.) The law journal calls it an “extraordinary reduction in oral argument” in the name of “procedural efficiency.”

To put this in people-speak, these days it’s unusual for an appellate court to order oral arguments, but they have in the Wershe case.

I spoke with Rick by phone from prison after the order was given for oral arguments in his rights case and asked for his reaction.  He told me, “cautiously optimistic is a good way to put it.” As I noted in another blog post, Wershe has had the rug pulled out from under him so many times, he’s learned to temper any happiness he may feel about such things.

Ralph Musilli, Wershe’s attorney, has been waging this battle for a long time. 

Ralph Musilli, Rick Wershe's attorney

When Musilli says “they” he means the State of Michigan, the Michigan Parole Board, prosecutors; everyone opposed to Rick Wershe’s parole. I’m going to let Musilli explain, in his own words (questions, to be precise), what’s going on:

“How are they going to argue that Richard Wershe, Jr. has been treated fairly by this parole board?”

“What’s the excuse for him still being there?

“How do they justify not giving this guy a parole hearing since 2003?

“Twenty-nine years and five-year flops. What is that?” (Wershe gets “considered” for parole every five years. If the Parole Board votes “no interest” there’s no parole hearing. The inmate gets “flopped” for another five years. It’s a way of implementing a life sentence five years at a time.)

“How do they get around the fact that every other juvenile 
sentenced under that statute has been out of prison for over a decade?”

“How are they going to argue that Richard Wershe, Jr. has been fairly by this parole board?”

“How many people in Wayne County, who have been convicted on violent offenses, have been released on parole since 2003? It’s thousands of them. And those people are all out on the street. And here you have a non-violent criminal who’s been in for 29 years. How do you reconcile that with fairness and how do you get around cruel and unusual punishment?

“What we are saying is, obviously, he has been treated differently than anybody else in his position (in the Michigan prison system). They’ve been emptying the prisons out. 
They’ve been closing prisons here in Michigan.”

Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball

As Cuban-born Desi Arnaz used to frequently say to Lucille Ball on their 1950s TV comedy show, “Alright, start ‘splainin’.”
In this instance, the State of Michigan has some “splainin’” to do to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In mid-December the Wershe defense team filed a new pleading in Detroit federal court for a writ of habeas corpus. That means the State of Michigan must appear before a federal judge and explain why they are keeping Wershe in prison in light of prevailing case law indicating he should be released on parole. The State, represented by the State Attorney General, has until June to come up with an answer. This is in addition to the civil rights lawsuit being considered by the Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. The motion for a writ of habeas corpus apparently was one legal battle too many for the State of Michigan over this lone prisoner.

Less than a week later, the Michigan Parole Board announced they were moving up Wershe's next scheduled parole review by nearly a year. Wershe was amazed as the "system" started working on the process in earnest over the Christmas holidays. In his 29 years in prison he says he's never seen them move this fast on a parole.

The next step is for a designated member of the Parole Board to formally interview Wershe face to face to determine if he's fit for parole. Eric Smith, the number two guy at Oaks Correctional Facility, where Wershe is serving his time, has said Rick Wershe is as close to being a model prisoner as possible.

Now we learn the chairperson of the Parole Board himself, Michael Eagen, is going to personally participate with member Sonia Amos-Warchock in Wershe's mid-February interview. Now THAT is an interesting development.

“It’s really getting interesting," Musilli says in, what is for him, a rare moment of understatement. 

"Now, all of a sudden, the heat is on and they can’t hide anymore.”

Simply put: the Michigan Parole Board now has two, count 'em-TWO, federal courts demanding answers regarding inmate Richard J. Wershe, Jr.

Attorney Ralph Musilli again:

“You have to give them a reasonable expectation of release. You cannot lock up a juvenile and throw the key away.”

“We challenged the Parole Board on the statute. It says if you are going to deny him parole you have to give him reasons for the denial and you have to give him bullet points, item by item, on what he has to do to make himself eligible. Their response to me was: if we never give him a hearing we never have to give him a reason. How cute is that?”

We will find out on March 16th.