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.



Sunday, January 15, 2017

Rick Wershe, Jr. is Waiting—and Hoping—for Freedom

Next month will mark the 29th year that Richard J. Wershe, Jr., known in the media as White Boy Rick, has been in prison for a non-violent drug offense. The Michigan Parole Board, at long last, seems interested in granting him parole.

Rick Wershe, Jr., about age 12 in this snapshot, had no way of knowing that a few years later he would be a paid secret informant for the FBI in an adventure that would put him in prison the rest of his life. (Photo courtesy of Dave Majkowski.)

The waiting must be hard. The not knowing must be harder. After years of waiting, after years of disappointment, things are moving. Rick Wershe’s life prison sentence may be coming to an end. Next month he has a critical, formal interview with a member of the Michigan Parole Board. 

If that goes well, if Rick appears ready to return to society, the Parole board member will report to the full board, which will then vote whether to consider Rick Wershe for parole. A public hearing is mandatory, but the Parole Board could decide no testimony is necessary, that they’ve decided to finally grant Wershe parole. A 29-year ordeal could be over in a matter of minutes.

Between now and the middle of February, Rick Wershe is left to sit in a cell the size of an oversized home bathroom or walk around in the prison exercise yard or watch TV and try to keep his mind off the clock and the calendar. The waiting must be hard. The not knowing must be harder.

I spoke with Rick over the Christmas holidays. Frankly, I think he’s afraid to hope. Wershe is not the kind of guy to be afraid of much of anything or anybody, but this is different. He’s been disappointed so many times. He’s afraid to get his hopes up. Wershe has developed a bit of a protective emotional shell over the years. He secretly hopes for the best but his public face says he’s prepared for the worst, which is more of the same. It’s the only way to keep his sanity. It’s the only way to avoid sinking in to the depths of despair. He’s good at bracing himself for bad news. Life in prison has done that to him. Still. This time, things seem different.

For those new to the Rick Wershe saga, here’s the semi-succinct back story:

Wershe was a 14-year old Detroit white kid living in a racially mixed neighborhood when the FBI came calling, wanting him to become a paid informant against some guys he knew; a black family named Curry. They were rising stars in Detroit’s cocaine scene. And they had political connections. Leader Johnnie Curry was married to Cathy Volsan, the niece of Detroit Mayor Coleman Young. That automatically gave Johnnie Curry real juice, which included receiving police narcotics intelligence reports from politically ambitious cops. Wershe knew the Currys through the youngest Curry brother, Rudell "Boo" Curry. The Currys trusted him.

Rick Wershe, by all accounts, did a good job for a joint federal/local narcotics task force. He also found out about corruption in the top ranks of the police department. He told the FBI about that, too. He learned Johnnie Curry had paid Gil Hill, the head of Detroit Police Homicide, to make a murder investigation go away. the victim was an innocent 13-year old boy, shot to death accidentally by members of the Curry gang.

When the FBI got the evidence they needed to indict and convict the Curry gang, the feds abandoned Wershe, their confidential informant, cold. A school dropout with no family to turn to, young Rick Wershe decided he, too, would become a dope dealer, a wholesaler. It was, of course, a bad decision. 

The Detroit police found out quickly and busted him. Gullible reporters who depend on leaks and tips from the cops for their news stories, had a field day smearing Rick Wershe as White Boy Rick, the white teen boss of Detroit’s cocaine underworld. They never stopped to ask how a white kid, arrested before he was 18, a kid who couldn’t grow a decent moustache, could give orders to prison-hardened, sometimes murderous, adult black dope dealers. Under a harsh Michigan law that has since been repealed, Rick Wershe was sentenced at age 18 to life in prison for a non-violent drug crime. He’s been there to this day.

Along the way, he continued helping the FBI—from prison. He disrupted two murder plots but he also helped set up an undercover sting of corrupt cops, including Gil Hill who by this time was a politically powerful city council member. Nearly a dozen cops were indicted but Hill escaped arrest, narrowly. He now knew, however, that Rick Wershe had been telling on him for years. Hill didn’t get mad. He got even.

When Wershe finally came up for a parole hearing, Hill and his cronies stacked the deck with police witnesses, some of whom misled the board, and some presented false and misleading “confidential” informant reports. Yet three FBI agents testified in favor of Wershe’s release.

The Parole Board, apparently mindful of Wershe’s media reputation as White Boy Rick, the drug kingpin and drug lord and menace to society, turned him down for parole. Gill Hill the apparent organizer of a law enforcement vendetta against Rick Wershe, died last year.

Now the Parole Board is back and considering parole for Rick Wershe. This time may be different.

Over the years Wershe’s attorneys have been battling for his release on the basis of civil rights violations. It is Constitutionally prohibited cruel and unusual punishment to treat one prisoner differently from all other prisoners incarcerated for the same offense.

Michigan has granted reduced sentences and paroles to well over a hundred inmates who, like Wershe, were sentenced to long prison terms as juveniles for non-violent drug crimes. Everyone fitting this case description has had a second chance. Everyone except Rick Wershe.

This is an aerial photo of Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee, Michigan where Rick Wershe is housed as Inmate # 193024. (Photo: InmateAid)

In December, Wershe’s attorneys filed a motion for a writ of habeas corpus in Detroit federal court. They already have a civil rights lawsuit for Wershe in play in Grand Rapids federal court, but it's moving slowly. The December legal move compels the State of Michigan, through the Attorney General’s office, to show the court why Wershe should remain in prison while the state is releasing a long list of others who were jailed on similar charges. They have until June to respond formally and in detail.

It appears to be one court battle too many for the State of Michigan. Less than a week after the habeas corpus filing, the Parole Board announced they were moving up Wershe’s next scheduled consideration for parole from next December to this spring. If they grant him parole in, say, April, the habeas corpus case goes away. The civil rights lawsuit goes away. The increasing media questions about why they are treating Wershe differently than every other drug lifer will go away. Those are good reasons to think this time may be different. Rick Wershe sure hopes so.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

2017 may be Rick Wershe’s Year for Parole. There is a Way You Can Help

Rick Wershe’s 2016 holidays had to be the best he’s had in a long time. He got word the Michigan Parole Board is accelerating the timetable for consideration of parole for him. This is his 29th year in prison. He was due for routine consideration in December. That’s been moved up to February. He told me he’s amazed at how fast things are moving. Here’s what’s happening and how you might be able to help.

Richard J. Wershe, Jr. has been a political prisoner in Michigan for a very long time. Twenty-eight years so far and he’s entering the 29th.

Richard J. Wershe, Jr. 2017 may be his year. (Photo: David Coates, Detroit News)

For those new to the story, here’s a recap: Rick was recruited by the FBI to become a drug informant at the tender age of 14 because he knew and was trusted by a politically-connected drug dealing family on Detroit’s east side. He helped the feds get indictments, and more. He told them about the possible corruption of Detroit Police Inspector Gil Hill, now deceased, who was the head of the Homicide unit and a local celebrity thanks to a small part in the Eddie Murphy movie Beverly Hills Cop. When the feds got what they needed for the drug case, they dropped Wershe as a paid informant.

He was then a school dropout with nowhere to turn, no family to back him up and no viable trade. So, he turned to the trade the police taught him. He started slinging dope and tried, unsuccessfully, to become a big-time drug wholesaler. He got caught by the Detroit Police and a pair of DEA agents and he was sentenced to life in prison. No one came to his aid for a variety of unsavory reasons that make law enforcement look like less than the good guys. He is believed to be Michigan’s longest-serving juvenile offender convicted for a non-violent crime.

The FBI and U.S. Justice Department never made a case against Gil Hill, although they certainly tried and he knew it. Convicted and admitted drug dealer Johnnie Curry eventually told the FBI he paid Gil Hill $10,000 to make a murder investigation go away. It involved the inadvertent murder of a 13-year old Detroit boy by members of the Current drug gang. Curry admitted this to FBI agents not once, but twice.

The late Gil Hill. Admitted and convicted drug dealer Johnnie Curry told FBI agents he paid Hill $10,000 to thwart a murder investigation linked to the Curry drug gang.  

Even so, neither the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office nor the U.S. Justice Department charged Hill with obstruction of justice or the violation of the civil rights of murder victim Damion Lucas. No one in the criminal “justice” system wanted to bring charges against a black celebrity, especially a black police celebrity, in a city like Detroit. 

Rick Wershe was a nobody. An expendable throwaway. He didn’t have Gil Hill’s political clout. Wershe was thrown to the wolves and Hill made sure the wolves kept after him with a life prison sentence that’s been doled out five years at a time. Hill died last year.

Wershe’s attorneys have been trying for years to get him out of prison. Real drug kingpins have been charged, tried, convicted, sentenced, imprisoned and released in the time Rick Wershe, the FBI-recruited informant, has been behind bars. As defense attorney Ralph Musilli puts it, Wershe told on the wrong people and he cost them a lot of money. The Detroit/Wayne County so-called criminal justice system has carried out a vendetta against Wershe in behalf of their drug-corrupted pals ever since. As retired FBI agent Gregg Schwarz put it: “Detroit has been and continues to be the gold standard for public corruption in the United States. Mayors, city officials, judges, police, it’s all there.”

Little wonder, then, that some in the Detroit Police, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office and more than a few local and state appellate judges are in the pocket of bribe-paying or politically-connected gangsters and perfectly willing to keep Rick Wershe, Jr. in prison for natural life, if possible if that's what their corrupt pals want.

Wershe has two federal civil rights lawsuits in play over his unusual punishment, which is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. The gist of his argument is he has been treated differently than everyone else in the Michigan prison system. He is the only known non-violent drug offender convicted as a juvenile who is still in prison. All the others have been re-sentenced and released.

Last month Wershe’s lawyers filed what is known as a motion for a writ of habeas corpus in Detroit federal court. This legal maneuver is intended to force prosecutors, police and prison administrators to demonstrate to a judge why they are holding a prisoner when there is reason to question whether he is being held unreasonably and in violation of his Constitutional rights.

The motion for a writ of habeas corpus appears to be one court fight too many for the State of Michigan in regard to Rick Wershe. The Michigan Attorney General, by law, represents the Michigan Department of Corrections when it is sued, as it has been in the habeas corpus case. The Attorney General’s office already represents the Department of Corrections in a pending civil rights case Wershe has filed in federal court in Grand Rapids, which has jurisdiction over the prison where he is incarcerated.

The Grand Rapids case appears stalled because the assigned judge doesn’t want to be bothered with a prisoner rights’ case. The habeas corpus motion is a horse of a different color. It forces the State of Michigan to convince a federal judge that they are holding Wershe properly. It requires an open court airing of the facts of the Wershe case. 

That’s something the “system” wants to avoid at all costs because Wershe’s reputation as a drug “kingpin” and “drug lord” is a police/prosecution fabrication aided and abetted by a gullible, headline-hungry news media that has never investigated the basis for the legend of White Boy Rick, Wershe’s media nickname.

Less than a week after the filing of the motion for a writ of habeas corpus, the Michigan Parole Board announced it was going to review the Wershe case for possible parole. He was due for a routine parole review in 2017, but not until December. All of sudden, the Parole Board has moved up the timetable—significantly.

I spoke with Rick last week and he said the Corrections Department had just completed his PER—Parole Eligibility Report. He was amazed at how fast things are moving now. Wershe says he’s never seen the system move so fast on a parole case, and he’s been watching the system from the inside for 28 years.

Here’s what happens next:

Sonia Amos-Warchock, a member of the 10-member Michigan Parole Board, will interview Wershe on February 13th. This will be a formal session. Rick’s lawyer, Ralph Musilli, will be present, along with a pair of parole consultants helping Rick navigate the process.

After the interview, Ms. Amos-Warchock will prepare a report she will share with the rest of the Parole Board. The board will then vote whether to consider Rick Wershe for parole. If a majority votes “Yes”, this will trigger a notice of a formal public hearing. The hearing notice must be posted twice, thirty days apart, by law. In a “lifer” case a public hearing is mandatory. The hearing might be an opportunity to finally air the dirty laundry of the Richard Wershe, Jr. case, with witnesses and exhibits.

Or it could be very, very brief. The Board could open the hearing, announce they have reviewed his case, and they have voted to parole Rick Wershe. Done. Fini. It could be all over in a matter of minutes.

This is where you could help. No matter what happens with the public hearing, it will be quite helpful if Rick Wershe’s many supporters show up; a show of public support that the Parole Board cannot ignore. Fill the joint to standing-room-only. Let the Board know there are plenty of people who think this guy deserves a second chance. 

We don’t know the location, date or time yet, but there will be plenty of advanced notice. The best guess is the Parole Board wants to grant a parole and get the Wershe case out of the system no later than the end of May. They are due in Detroit federal court in June to present their case against Wershe and it’s logical to think they want this case behind them before June shows up on the calendar.

Over time many people have asked what they can do to help Rick Wershe. Taking the time to stand up—literally—for Wershe at his long-sought parole hearing would be a powerful way to help him end this nightmarish, life-sapping ordeal.

If things go Rick Wershe’s way, if he finally gets some justice, it may happen in the spring of 2017.