Sunday, August 28, 2016

Prosecutor Kym Worthy blinked—sorta—on parole for Rick Wershe

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy has decided, at long last, that maybe, perhaps, she should take a second look at parole for Richard “White Boy Rick” Wershe, Jr. who is serving a life prison term for a non-violent drug conviction when he was a teenager. Wershe is no ordinary doper. He was a secret teen informant for the FBI, and he told on some very politically connected people who were profiting from the Detroit drug trade. Worthy has fought ferociously to keep Wershe in prison even though opinions among many in law enforcement and the general public, have changed about Wershe. What did she say about parole for Wershe and what’s next?

There’s a tradition in Corporate America known as the Friday Afternoon Bad News Drop. Publicly traded corporations learned years ago that it is often advantageous to release bad news late on a Friday afternoon. The traditional Bad News Drop occurs after the stock market has closed for the weekend, investors have their attention focused on two days off and newsrooms are sparsely staffed because the Saturday edition is always the smallest edition of the paper with the fewest pages and the fewest reporters to fill them. Corporate PR flacks understand bad news is likely to get the least attention and the least news coverage if it’s released late on a Friday.

We don’t know if that thinking was a part of Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy’s decision this past Friday afternoon to drop a bombshell about her possible willingness to consider parole for Richard Wershe, Jr., known in the media as White Boy Rick.

Kym Worthy - Wayne County Prosecutor (Photo: Al Goldis, AP)

She issued a written statement which said: "Having been immersed in the Juvenile Life Without Parole Murder cases for the last six months, I have noted parallels to the Richard Wershe case that have caused me to review the office position in his case," Worthy said in her statement. "However, it is important to note that only the Michigan Parole Board determines who does or doesn't receive parole.”

Let’s explore the background and what may happen next.

Worthy has taken a lot of heat in recent months, some of it from the Informant America blog, about her hard ass attitude about Wershe and others convicted as juveniles.

In 2010, Essence, a monthly magazine for African American women, did a lengthy profile of Worthy and labeled her “The Toughest Woman In Detroit.” It seems to have gone to Prosecutor Worthy’s head. She has a magazine headline reputation to maintain.

The Prosecutor seems to enjoy her rep.

Not long ago Prosecutor Worthy captured national headlines—of the worst sort—for the wrongful imprisonment of Devontae Sanford, a developmentally-challenged young man who was prosecuted by Worthy’s office and sentenced to prison for a quadruple murder he didn’t commit. An admitted hitman, himself in prison, came forward and said, several times, he was the killer, not Sanford. Worthy was having none of it until a wrongful imprisonment advocacy group took up the Sanford case and more or less forced a new investigation. Worthy reluctantly went along with releasing Devontae Sanford after he had spent eight years in prison.

While all of this was going Worthy and the rest of Michigan’s county prosecutors were working to review cases where inmates who were sent to prison as juveniles for murder were reconsidered under a directive from the U.S. Supreme Court that those sentenced to life in their teens should be re-sentenced except in rare and unusual cases.

Next came a scathing report by the Harvard University Law School’s Fair Punishment Project singling Worthy out among the nation’s 2,300 county prosecutors as “an extreme outlier” on the issue of juvenile sentencing.

Cover of Harvard Law School report on Kym Worthy and Juvenile Justice

The Harvard Law School, arguably the nation’s most prestigious law school, singled Worthy out alone among the nation’s prosecutors for persisting in wanting inmates sentenced when they were teens to spend their entire lives behind bars.

The Detroit news media didn’t do much with the Harvard report on Worthy but an Informant America blog post was devoted to it. That post hit a nerve. It has had over 25,000 unique page views. That’s quite a few for a niche blog that isn’t marketed to the search engines. It means 25,000 Internet surfers heard about it and sought it out to read. Did someone among all those readers have influence on Worthy? Did she get heat from the judges and lawyers of Detroit for being singled out as a prosecutorial oddity on juvenile crime cases? Did some string-pulling political pooh-bah whisper in her ear that now is the time to back off the Wershe parole issue? We don’t know and she’s not about to tell us.

So what’s next for Rick Wershe? Good question. No one knows, for now.

His next parole review is scheduled for December, 2017, over a year from now. The Michigan Parole Board, which is responsible to no one except Gov. Snyder, who has absolutely zero interest in prison and corrections matters, can do whatever it chooses. The board can vote at any time to bring an inmate’s case up for review. They don’t have to follow the schedule if they don’t want to. They are the ones who make up the schedule, anyway.

Let’s go back and look carefully at what Kym Worthy said Friday. She said in reviewing the Juvenile Life Without Parole Murder cases she noted “parallels to the Richard Wershe case.” She carefully said those parallels “have caused me to review the office position in his case.” She didn’t say she won’t oppose his release on parole. She didn’t say she favors his release. She only said she has reviewed her office's position on his case, whatever that means. Presumably, it means if the Parole Board or someone else takes the initiative to free Rick Wershe, she may go along with it. Kym Worthy sure as hell doesn’t want to advocate his parole, not after all these months of stubbornly and foolishly fighting to keep him in prison. That would be too much crow to eat at one sitting.

The State of Michigan may take the initiative to cut its losses on Wershe due to a lawsuit in federal court. Wershe has a civil rights lawsuit going against the Michigan Parole Board for failing to provide him with a fair parole hearing. Readers of Informant America know there are plenty of reasons to question the kangaroo-court quality of Wershe’s one and only parole hearing in 2003.

Ralph Musilli, Wershe’s long-battling attorney, knows it, too. A federal judge in Grand Rapids tried to dismiss Wershe’s lawsuit but the 6th U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati said, not so fast.

Wershe’s civil rights case is now before the appeals court and Musilli has asked for oral arguments, a request that is usually granted. The Michigan Attorney General’s office, representing the state parole board, filed a reply last month that essentially says, “Us, too. We want oral arguments, too.” If they didn’t do that it might have left Musilli in court alone to answer questions from the bench.

Up to now, the lawyers on both sides and the various judges who've been involved in the Wershe soap opera have been engaged in a never-ending circular argument over which case law applies. “Graham applies!” “No, it doesn’t!” “Yes, it does!” “No, it doesn’t.” This has gone on over and over and over. And it has gone nowhere.

In the state’s pleadings in the federal lawsuit the Attorney General keeps including an extremely harsh letter purportedly written by then-Wayne County Prosecutor Mike Duggan, now the Mayor of the City of Detroit. That letter, on its face, is a summary of Rick Wershe’s life of crime. It flat-out calls him a menace to society.

The purported Mike Duggan letter about parole for Rick Wershe is astonishingly harsh.

For judges who are unfamiliar with the White Boy Rick saga that letter, which Duggan says he doesn’t remember, is the primary recitation of "facts" about Wershe  to consider in terms of their willingness to give him a break. All of the court machinations to now have been about the "law" and not about the "facts" of whether Wershe is or isn't a menace to society. The court system has gone to great lengths to avoid a re-examination of factual assertions in the Wershe case, even though there are numerous questionable "facts" in the Duggan letter. They keep wanting to re-hash case law when it's Wershe's reputation as a drug "kingpin" that is keeping him behind bars.

The oral arguments before the federal court of appeals can be an opportunity for Musilli to finally challenge the Duggan letter before a panel of judges who can order a hearing regarding the truth or falsity of the claims about Wershe’s life of crime. If they order a full hearing with court-ordered discovery of evidence and maybe even testimony from witnesses, watch out. The Michigan Attorney General and the Wayne County Prosecutor will suddenly find themselves struggling to climb uphill on a very steep incline.

If the lawyers in the Attorney General’s office have any sense—this is assuming a fact not in evidence, as they say in court—they will realize they could find themselves in a deep hole in such a hearing. If that risk dawns on them the powers-that-be in Lansing may decide Rick Wershe needs an expedited parole hearing in order to get him out of the system and avoid high profile embarrassment for going to such lengths to punish a drug kingpin who never was.

Rick Wershe can hope. 

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