Sunday, December 6, 2015

Rick Wershe and the Lockridge Case

Rick Wershe’s latest shot at getting out of prison hinges on the Michigan Supreme Court applying one of its own recent rulings to the Wershe case, as it did recently with 50 other cases. Based on the court’s actions thus far, it would be odd indeed if the high court doesn’t send his case back to the trial judge for consideration of re-sentencing; something she has indicated she has every intention of doing once the top court sends it back to her.

If Rick Wershe gets out of prison any time soon it will be due in part to a guy who strangled his wife. Perhaps I should explain.

Last July the Michigan Supreme Court issued an important ruling that is sure to have a big impact on sentencing in criminal cases, including the case of Rick Wershe. The high court’s opinion was in The People of the State of Michigan v. Rahim Omarkhan Lockridge. Lockridge was charged with 1st Degree Murder in the strangulation death of his wife, Kenyatte, in Southfield in 2011. There had been a history of domestic violence preceding her death. An Oakland County jury found Lockridge guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Rahim Omarkahn Lockridge (Dept. of Corrections photo)

Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Nanci Grant went above the state sentencing guidelines and tacked an additional 10 months on to Lockridge’s sentence. He was sentenced to 8 to 15 years in prison. The judge told the Detroit Free Press she went above the guidelines because of the violence of the crime, the fact the couple’s children witnessed the murder of their mother and because Rahim Lockridge violated a court order by even being in the apartment.

Lockridge appealed. His lawyer argued the judge based the additional minimum time on evidence not presented to the jury. Furthermore, the Lockridge appeal attacked the Michigan sentencing guidelines themselves. His appeal cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling and argued the sentencing guidelines were inherently invalid because they placed an unconstitutional restraint on judicial discretion in sentencing. In late July the Michigan Supreme Court agreed.

That decision has far-reaching implications because it revises the fundamentals of how judges throughout the state handle sentences for convicted defendants. In the past judges were mostly tethered to the established guidelines. That was the case when Rick Wershe was sentenced to mandatory life without parole. Thomas Jackson, his trial judge at the time (since retired) had no choice under the law. That law was eventually modified to allow for parole consideration. Jackson revised Wershe's sentence to conform to the updated law but the Michigan Parole Board has denied Wershe a parole multiple times.

The Lockridge decision means trial court judges now have sentencing discretion. Proponents say it gives the trial judge latitude to consider all the circumstances of a case. Opponents say it will result in sentencing disparity.

The fallout from Lockridge can be seen in a recent string of Michigan Supreme Court case decisions. On October 28, 2015, the Michigan Supreme Court issued fifty (50) “Lockridge” opinions on pending cases, sending them back to the trial courts in counties throughout Michigan. This doesn’t mean each defendant will receive a new sentence. What it means is the trial judge in each case now has an order from the Michigan Supreme Court to review the sentence in the case that has been remanded (returned) to them for sentencing evaluation. The judge can stick with the original sentence or re-sentence the defendant now that trial judges have been given discretion to depart from the established sentencing guidelines. Many more “Lockridge” opinions and remands (sending the case back to the trial court) are sure to follow in the coming months.

Fourteen of the 50 “Lockridge” cases are from Wayne County, where Prosecutor Kym Worthy is fighting vigorously to keep Rick Wershe in prison, arguing his original sentence was valid under prevailing state law at the time. Worthy’s office argues changing Wershe’s sentence would be tinkering with the case sentence retroactively. That’s exactly what the Michigan Supreme Court Lockridge decision allows. Wayne County Circuit Court judge Dana Hathaway, Wershe’s trial court judge, reasoned that Lockridge should apply to the Wershe case, too. The Wayne County prosecutor appealed and the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed her decision on a legal technicality.

Some of the Wayne County cases sent back under Lockridge for possible re-sentencing are doozies.

Rafeal Emmanuel Dean (Dept of Corrections Photo)

Rafeal “Ra Ra” Emmanuel Dean is doing time because he had several of his homies beat a neighbor to a pulp while Dean fired a pistol next to the victim’s head. It was over a neighborhood dispute that had angered Dean. This guy is a repeat offender. He once tortured several men by burning their heads and faces with hot forks over a pair of stolen tennis shoes.

Martez Clemons (Dept. of Corrections Photo)

Another “Lockridge” case going back for sentencing re-consideration involves Martez Clemons. He’s doing time for raping a 55-year old Detroit woman repeatedly after breaking in to her apartment. The police found him passed out in the woman’s apartment with his pants down around his ankles. He was convicted of six counts of first degree criminal sexual conduct. He was also convicted on charges of home invasion and assault with intent to do great bodily harm.

Rick Wershe was never charged or convicted of any violent crime. His drug case was major but it was a first-time conviction handed down when he was 18 years old. Attorney Ralph Musilli, who has been waging court battles for Wershe for a long time, is frustrated that the Michigan Supreme Court isn't giving Wershe emergency consideration in light of the fact he's been in prison far longer than the others who are benefiting from the Lockridge ruling.

“What’s happening in this case makes no sense,” Musilli says, “particularly in light of Lockridge, particularly in light of all these cases that have come tumbling down the mountain.”

Rick Wershe’s appeal is sitting in the stack of cases before the Michigan Supreme Court. Wershe’s appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court was filed October 30, 2015 and the docket sheet indicates the trial court record was received on November 30th. It should be noted the 50 cases decided on October 28th had been in the system for a while. The wheels of justice grind slowly. In Rick Wershe’s case it has taken 27 years for them to begin turning.    

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