Sunday, September 6, 2015

Judge Declares Wershe Prison Sentence Unconstitutional; Battle Looms over Re-Sentencing

The clock is ticking on a Detroit judge's decision to re-sentence Richard Wershe, Jr., calling his life prison term unconstitutional. The prosecutor's office intends to fight it as they've always done. 

Clad in a green prisoner jumpsuit, he walked quickly to the defense table from the prisoner bullpen next to the courtroom. He didn’t make eye contact with anyone. It seemed like he was keeping his shaved head down, trying as best he could to maintain a low profile even though he was the center of attention. Spending your entire adult life in prison will do that to a man.

Rick Wershe, Jr. was back in court last week with new hope for release from prison.
(Photo: David Coates, Detroit News)

Richard J. Wershe, Jr. was in the courtroom of Wayne County Circuit Court judge Dana M. Hathaway last Friday morning for a brief but important appearance. Judge Hathaway is inclined to give Wershe a reason to hold his head up. Wershe was brought back to Detroit from a prison in western Michigan on her order so he could hear her written legal opinion that he should be re-sentenced on his life in prison term. She didn’t say so but she gave every indication she wants to re-sentence him to time served. In other words, she thinks it’s time to end the injustice that has been inflicted on the man the public came to know as White Boy Rick. Judge Hathaway stated flatly in her opinion “This court finds that Defendant’s original sentence was unconstitutional.” 

The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office objected. The judge was asked to “stay” her plan to re-sentence Wershe on September 18. The request was denied. An assistant prosecutor said they would appeal to the Michigan Court of Appeals and ask the appellate court to halt the process.  

Judge Hathaway took over Wershe’s case when his trial and sentencing judge, Thomas Jackson, retired. It is clear she has reviewed his case and she is struck by the fact Wershe was 17 when the crime was committed and 18 when he was sentenced to life in prison for a non-violent drug case.

Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Dana M. Hathaway on the bench last Friday announcing she intends to re-sentence Wershe from his life prison term.
(Photo: Al Lengel, Deadline Detroit)

Judge Hathaway noted in her opinion “this juvenile defendant has been punished more severely than he could have been for first degree murder, rape, kidnapping, armed robbery or other exceptionally grave and violent crimes. This lends additional support to the argument that defendant’s sentence is disproportionate.” The Michigan Supreme Court has made a point of “proportionality” which means let the punishment fit the crime.

This judge clearly gets the point that the punishment of Richard J. Wershe, Jr. is all out of proportion to prevailing standards in criminal justice. “If Defendant were to be resentenced today for the crime he committed in 1987, his potential (sentencing) guidelines in this case are as low as 42-70 months,“ the judge wrote.

Without going in to more detail here, it should be noted Judge Hathaway is critical in her opinion of the way the Michigan Parole Board does its job.

It’s been years since Richard J. Wershe, Jr. was in a courtroom. It’s true that Wershe had tried to become a player in the cocaine trade. It is a dirty business but it was the only business he knew. Cops on a Detroit federal drug task force had taught him the dope trade after they recruited him—at age 14—to become an undercover paid informant against the Curry Brothers, a major, politically-connected drug gang.

To this day, many Detroit reporters still can’t get it right. They insist on calling him a drug-dealer-turned-informant. They’ve got it exactly wrong. Rick Wershe was an informant-turned- dope-dealer. There is a BIG difference.

Most police informants turn to snitching to get out of trouble. With Rick Wershe, Jr. it was just the opposite. Rick Wershe wasn’t in trouble. He was 14. And he was known to a family of dope dealers because they lived in the same neighborhood. He became a police drug informant because FBI agents and Detroit police officers asked this middle school kid to play undercover agent and help them prosecute a bunch of bad guys. What teenage kid would turn that down?

The other side of Rick’s story that doesn’t get reported by skim-the-surface reporters is how law enforcement kicked Wershe to the curb to fend for himself after they got what they needed from him in the Curry case.

Wershe had dropped out of school to live the fast life of a drug world informant. The FBI had given Rick cash to enable him to be a player. Wershe admits he was dazzled by the fancy cars, the designer clothes, the hot women.

Suddenly it was all gone. He had nowhere to turn. His parents were divorced. His father was in and out of trouble. Richard Wershe, Sr. had become an FBI informant himself as a hedge against going to jail. It was Rick’s dad who introduced him to a pair of FBI agents who were intrigued that the kid was familiar with the Curry Brothers who were targeted by the federal drug task force for prosecution. Rick’s sister had become a drug addict. So when the excellent adventure as a paid FBI informant ended, young Rick Wershe turned to the trade the police had taught him. He set out to become a “weight man”, a wholesale-level dope dealer. He didn’t have a gang. He didn’t operate crack houses. He scored coke from a guy he had met in Miami. Rick Wershe barely got started when the police busted him in a case that carried a life sentence under a harsh Michigan law that has since been discarded.

When Rick Wershe Jr. was living the life of a recruited-informant-turned-dope-dealer, the late John O’Hair was the Wayne County prosecutor. O’Hair was a bit of a stuffed shirt straight arrow, but he also was an elected official. O’Hair, like prosecutors everywhere, wanted to appear tough on crime to the voters.

O’Hair was not happy to see the feds take over the “war on drugs” because that meant he was cut out of the prosecutorial glory.

When Rick Wershe tried his hand at being a cocaine wholesaler and got caught, O’Hair was only too happy to prosecute a “kingpin” and “drug lord” even if this supposed drug baron was just a 17-year old white kid trying to be a big shot in the deadly black underworld.

After the young man the media loved to call White Boy Rick was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, word eventually got back to O’Hair and his team that Rick Wershe, Jr. had first-hand knowledge of drug payoffs to a Detroit police narcotics sergeant who O’Hair wanted to prosecute in the worst way. The sergeant had caused the prosecutor’s office a lot of grief.

O’Hair sent one of his assistants, the late Patrick Foley, to meet with Wershe in prison. Foley was a veteran assistant prosecutor experienced in drug and organized crime cases.

Foley met with Wershe and his attorney, the late Bill Bufalino II, after Rick's conviction, to hear firsthand what he knew about the dirty cop.

Rick recently told me he had paid the sergeant to avoid drug raids. Rick says the sergeant soon wanted larger payoffs. Wershe balked and the next thing he knew Detroit Police narcs and a couple of DEA agents known as the “No Crack Crew” were on his back almost constantly.

In the prison meeting Rick asked Foley what he, Foley, was offering him on his life prison sentence if he helped prosecute the dirty narcotics sergeant. Foley told Wershe the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office was offering nothing. They “might” consider asking for a sentence reduction for him after Rick went the full distance in helping nail the corrupt cop. Rick told Foley to go pound sand or words to that effect.

O’Hair was said to be livid. This kid had helped the FBI and U.S. Attorney make a big drug case—the successful prosecution of the Curry Brothers drug gang. Yet he wouldn’t help the prosecutor who had just sent him to prison for life, unless the prosecutor offered him something in return.

It should be noted and underlined that the Wayne County Prosecutor—like other prosecutors around the country—routinely makes deals with criminals in exchange for cooperation and testimony in prosecutions. It’s the way the U.S. criminal justice system works. O’Hair did it. His successor Mike Duggan did it. (Duggan is now the mayor of the City of Detroit.) Kym Worthy, the current prosecutor has done it and continues to make deals to this day. Fact: the nation’s prisons would be nearly empty if it weren’t for ‘Let’s Make A Deal.’

Nevertheless, O’Hair was having none of it with White Boy Rick, his big marquee drug conviction. If this punk wouldn’t help prosecute a corrupt cop without a deal on his life sentence, then Wershe forever would be a marked man with the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office.

But O’Hair’s time was long ago. Has the vendetta really stuck over all these years? You bet it has. And since O’Hair’s time new reasons emerged to supposedly justify a prosecutorial grudge against White Boy Rick.  The tale of what happened in the Wershe case since the O’Hair era is eye-popping. It will be told on Informant America in future posts.

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