Unlike the popular song of the season, Rick Wershe, Jr. did not have himself a Merry Little Christmas. It was just the opposite. But he had a bit of cheer from the outpouring of support for his holiday food and gift drive. He asked me to thank all of you who helped Christmas be a little better for a bunch of families in need.
As usual Christmas was a real bummer for Rick Wershe, Jr. Yet, he’s gratified and grateful. There’s a logical explanation for this seeming contradiction.
Christmas is a miserable day in prison, any prison. “There’s no holidays in prison, Vince,” Rick told me in a holiday phone call. But Wershe has taken some solace in the fact so many people who believe in him pitched in and helped with his holiday food drive for the needy.
During the holidays in recent years Rick has asked for help—not for himself, but for people on the outside who are in need. This year, Rick’s supporters really came through in a big way.
|Truck loaded with food from Rick Wershe's annual holiday food/present drive for needy families. (Photo courtesy of Dave Majkowski.)|
“We were very pleased", Pamela Dickerson of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Detroit told me. “We had way more (from Rick Wershe’s holiday food and gift drive) than we expected.” Ms. Dickerson said they were able to feed 80 families with over 30 donated turkeys and food was left over. What’s more, they were able to provide much-needed winter hats, gloves, mittens and throw-blankets for kids without such basics.
|Some of the food donated to the needy by Rick Wershe supporters. (Photo courtesy of Dave Majkowski.)|
|Immanuel Lutheran Church coordinated the distribution of the holiday food for Rick Wershe's annual drive. (Photo courtesy of Dave Majkowski.)|
Rick got to talk to Ms. Dickerson by phone before Christmas and he was gratified when she told him she couldn’t believe he had led this project from inside prison. The satisfaction he derived from helping people in need helps offset the melancholy of spending the holiday season behind bars.
“I haven’t had a Christmas in 28 years,” Rick told me. “It’s just another day.”
On Christmas, as he has done for decades, Wershe got up, had some breakfast, watched the news on TV, did a little exercise and spent an hour and fifteen minutes “in the yard” as it is called. He got to call his family to wish them merry Christmas; then it was back to his cell.
What about Christmas dinner? Rick Wershe scoffs when asked about that. “We used to get a real piece of turkey for Christmas but since the State of Michigan privatized food service for the prisons we get cheap processed meat, turkey parts ground up and pressed in to slabs,” he said.
Christmas 2016 may be different for Rick Wershe, Jr...but only if someone in the criminal justice system decides to do the right thing.
Going in to 2016 Rick Wershe, Jr. has three possibilities to get out from under his life sentence for a 1988 drug conviction. Any of the three might offer salvation. It is impossible to rate one over another in terms of the odds of setting Rick Wershe free.
There is a civil rights case pending in the federal court in Grand Rapids. Wershe’s long-suffering pro bono attorney, Ralph Musilli, filed the lawsuit based on the Michigan Parole Board's repeated refusal in recent years to consider parole for Wershe. Michigan’s harsh “650 law” which called for a mandatory life sentence for anyone convicted of possession of more than 650 grams of illegal drugs has been repealed. That means Wershe is eligible for parole.
All others in Michigan convicted under similar circumstances have been paroled. All except Rick Wershe. That fits the U.S. Constitution Eight Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The fact Wershe has been treated differently than everyone else similarly charged constitutes unusual punishment. The fact he has been behind bars for nearly 28 years for a non-violent crime while drug hit men, cold-blooded killers, have been imprisoned and released in the time Wershe has been incarcerated fits the definition of cruel punishment.
The judge on the case, Gordon Quist, tried to throw out the Wershe civil rights lawsuit as frivolous litigation but the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and sent the case back to Quist in 2014 to hold a hearing to determine the facts behind the parole board’s refusal to consider parole for Wershe. Judge Quist has sat on the case ever since. There’s nothing in the Court of Appeals remand that specifies when Quist has to act on the case. Federal judges have broad power over matters before their court and they don’t like it when an appeals court tells them they were wrong.
There’s one other thing to remember about the federal lawsuit and it’s powerful. Pursuant to the ruling by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals the trial court would likely hold a full hearing to explore what the Michigan Parole Board has and hasn’t done in denying Wershe parole.
Attorney Musilli would have the opportunity to call witnesses and subpoena documents—lots of documents—that would show what the law enforcement establishment really “has” on Rick Wershe, Jr. This blog has already shown there is plenty of reason to believe the legend of White Boy Rick Wershe is built on lies. (See the Informant America blog posts: White Boy Rick—‘The Records Do Not Exist’ and Did a DEA Agent Mislead the Parole Board about White Boy Rick?) The files of the FBI, DEA, Detroit Police and the Wayne County Prosecutor will likely show just how threadbare the accusations against him have been all along. As this blog has asserted all along, Rick Wershe, Jr. is still in prison as retribution for informing on politically powerful people in Detroit.
The importance of this kind of hearing is about changing perceptions that have hardened and calcified for nearly 30 years. One of the reasons Wershe is still behind bars is the enduring perception of him as a “drug lord” and drug “kingpin.” People in the criminal justice system and in the political system with the power to help Wershe are reluctant to do so in large part because of his reputation. They don’t want the voting public to remember them releasing a big-time drug impresario. That myth about his drug past must be destroyed to enable some key people grow a backbone. A full, let-it-all-hang-out hearing would go a long way toward that goal. A full court hearing would spoon-feed the truth to media organizations complicit in smearing Rick Wershe, Jr.’s reputation for decades.
The second chance for a Wershe parole rests with the Michigan Supreme Court. (See the Informant America blog post Rick Wershe and the Lockridge Case.) A Michigan Supreme Court decision last summer (the Lockridge decision) restores trial judge discretion in sentencing people convicted. Wershe’s trial judge, Dana Hathaway of Wayne County Circuit Court has made it plain she’s ready to sentence Wershe to what amounts to time-served. But first his case must be sent to her by the Michigan Supreme Court. Ordinarily, the Wershe case should be remanded to Judge Hathaway under the Lockridge decision in the foreseeable future. But as we’ve seen, the Wershe case is far from ordinary when it comes to treatment by the justice system.
The third and least likely chance for Wershe is a gubernatorial pardon or clemency from Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. Good luck with that. Despite the fact some influential national and state Republicans are now questioning the wisdom of providing 24/7, 365 room and board for years for non-violent drug offenders like Rick Wershe, Snyder shows no inclination toward making changes in Michigan’s parole and pardon system. Like most state governors, Snyder did not issue any holiday pardons or grant clemency.
As a corrections-oriented organization known as The Marshall Project explains in a recent post on its Web site, “a pardon is a restoration of someone’s rights and privileges — often to vote, get a business license, or buy a firearm — usually after someone has completed a prison sentence. An early release from prison is a commutation.”
A few state leaders buck the generalization of governors ignoring prison pardons. For instance, Kentucky’s outgoing Governor Steve Beshear issued 201 prisoner pardons as his last act as governor. A few days before Christmas New York’s Governor Mario Cuomo announced plans to pardon thousands of law-abiding adults who were convicted of non-violent crimes as teenagers. Wershe fits that description. If he were incarcerated in New York he almost certainly would be high on that list.
But he isn’t. He’s in Michigan where the perennially corrupt Detroit/Wayne County political machine still has a lot of clout. Protégés of some of the biggest political crooks of all time are ready to pounce on Snyder if he dares to release a “kingpin” and “drug lord.”
So Wershe’s best hope lies with (a) the Michigan Supreme Court applying its own Lockridge decision to his case or (b) with U.S. District Judge Gordon Quist of Grand Rapids clearing some time on his court calendar to do the right thing and hold a hearing on the Wershe case in the interest of justice. Rick Wershe is hoping 2016 will be a better year than the past 27.