Sunday, February 26, 2017

Rick Wershe’s Conversation with a Movie Star

On Valentine’s Day Rick Wershe was interviewed by the chair of the Michigan Parole Board as part of the process required to grant him parole after 29 years in prison for a nonviolent drug crime. Wershe and his lawyer believe the interview went well. The results will be presented to the full board at its next meeting, the second Friday in March. Rick Wershe had another pleasant experience recently during a phone call. Here’s what happened.

People who have been following the saga of Richard Wershe, Jr. know Hollywood has taken an interest in using his story to develop a movie about White Boy Rick, the name the police and news media gave him after he was arrested.

Filming begins next month in Detroit with additional production in Ohio. The Buckeye State figures into the picture strictly for tax reasons. States compete intensely for motion picture production projects by offering tax incentives. Apparently, Ohio gave the producers of the film an attractive package, so some scenes will be shot there instead of Detroit or Hollywood.

Wershe is pleased that Hollywood wants to tell his story, or at least part of it. A single movie couldn't possibly tell his complete life story. He’s had enough adventures and mis-adventures for a series of movies. Wershe is helping the producers through regular phone calls from prison.

In one recent phone call with Scott Franklin (Noah, Black Swan, The Wrestler) the producer of the White Boy Rick film, Franklin said there was someone in his office he would like to put on the phone with Rick. Movie star Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyer’s Club, Magic Mike, Failure to Launch) came on the line.

Actor Matthew McConaughey-he will play the role of Rick Wershe's father, Richard Wershe, Sr., in a film due out next January. (Photo-Wikimedia Commons)

“He was a real nice guy, “Wershe tells me. “We talked about how I do my time (in prison). I told him, day by day. I said I have good days and bad days.”

Wershe says they also talked about his late father. McConaughey is starring in the film as Rick’s father, Richard Wershe, Sr. “We talked a little about my Dad, nothing specific,” Wershe recalls. “I just told him my Dad loved him as an actor. The senior Wershe passed away in 2014, a victim of cancer.

Richard J. Wershe, Sr. in a photo from around 2012

Wershe says other media accounts stating that McConaughey offered him a job after he gets out of prison are inaccurate. He says Scott Silver, one of the screenplay writers on the film, offered to pay a year’s rent for Rick wherever he wants to live or he could live with Silver and his family in New York. Silver’s offer was in a letter of support for Wershe submitted to the Michigan Parole Board as part of the campaign to win a parole.

Wershe is flattered by all of this but he says his goal is to try to have a normal life, whatever that this, after nearly three decades—his entire adult life—behind bars. The first thing he wants to do is visit the graves of his father, and his grandfather and grandmother. Roman Wershe passed away in 1985. Vera Wershe passed away in 1988.

Rick Wershe, seated at the right. His grandfather, Roman Wershe, is on the left. His friend Dave Majkowski is in the center.

In the meantime, Wershe says, “I’m just waiting to see what happens next.” 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

SPECIAL UPDATE: Rick Wershe’s Parole Interview ‘Went Well’

Over 3,000 readers have checked out Sunday’s blog post about Rick Wershe’s pending parole interview. This blog is normally updated every other Sunday. It is foolish and perhaps frustrating to wait until Feb. 26th to report on what happened today - February 14th - at Wershe's parole interview. Here is a summary based on the impressions of Ralph Musilli, Wershe’s attorney, who sat in on the interview.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017 was a good day for a guy who hasn’t had many good days in the last 29 years.

Richard J. Wershe, Jr. was interviewed for about 45 minutes by the chair of the Michigan Parole Board for a possible parole from his life sentence. He was sentenced at age 18 for an arrest when he was 17. It was a non-violent drug conviction but he was sent to prison for life under a draconian state law that has since been discarded. Every other Michigan prison inmate charged similarly as a juvenile drug offender under that law has had their case reviewed and most have been released from prison.

Rick Wershe, Jr. in court in Detroit in September, 2015 (Photo: Brian Kauffman, Detroit Free Press)

Wershe’s lawyers have been fighting in the federal courts against his continued imprisonment, arguing his civil rights have been violated because he’s been treated differently from every other state prison inmate similarly charged.

Those federal cases are heating up and the State of Michigan is on the hook to explain, in court, why they are treating Wershe in a different manner than all other inmates. The State of Michigan doesn’t have a good answer for that, thus Wershe’s consideration for parole has received priority interest by “the system.”

Wershe was interviewed first thing Tuesday morning via remote video conferencing hookup by Michael Eagen, chair of the Michigan Parole Board. Eagen was in Lansing. Wershe was at the Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee, where he is serving his prison term. There were several inmate interviews scheduled with Wershe's, but Eagen did only one of them; Richard Wershe's. Another member of the Parole Board handled all the others.

“It went very well,” Ralph Musilli, Wershe’s attorney, said. “He (Wershe) was very candid. He answered all his questions.”

Ralph Musilli-Rick Wershe's attorney. He sat in on Wershe's parole interview.

Eagen didn’t ask any trick questions. It was stuff that was expected. He asked Wershe about his arrest, what happened, how long he had been dealing drugs and how much money he made.

Rick Wershe has always admitted he did wrong. He’s always admitted he was wrong to try to become a big-time drug dealer. But the argument has been that Wershe has been treated unfairly.

He was recruited by the FBI at age 14 to become an informant against a politically-connected drug gang because he knew some of the leaders. Unlike many snitches who cooperate to get leniency on a drug bust, Wershe was taught the drug trade by members of Detroit’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF). 

When Wershe got the evidence the Feds needed against the Johnnie Curry drug gang, the task force kicked Wershe to the curb, so to speak. They used him, then dumped him.

Cast adrift, with no parental supervision to speak of, Wershe turned to the only trade he knew; slinging dope. It was a bad decision and he’s paid for it by spending his entire life behind bars while cold-blooded hitmen who murdered numerous people in the drug trade have been arrested, tried, sentenced and released in the time Wershe has remained in prison for his non-violent drug offense. 

As the Informant America blog has documented over the past two years, Wershe’s real crime was that he informed on drug-related corruption in the Detroit/Wayne County criminal justice system. He told on the wrong people and they have waged a vendetta against him ever since. The corrupt Detroit/Wayne Criminal Justice system has never forgiven Wershe for telling the FBI the truth about them.

Wershe kept helping the Feds even after he went to prison. He helped launch an FBI undercover sting operation that resulted in the conviction of several police officers and the brother-in-law of then-Mayor Coleman Young of Detroit. Young and his brother-in-law, Willie Volsan, are both deceased.

As a result of his FBI cooperation, Wershe’s life was in danger so he was put in the federal Witness Security program, or WitSec, a special prison system for convicts who help make important criminal cases. 

While he was in WitSec in Florida, Wershe made another bad decision. He got wind of a used-car arrangement on the outside. Wershe figured it was a good way to help his mother and sister get a car. It turned out to be a scam and Wershe got busted and was charged. He pled guilty and was sentenced for a new crime and evicted from the WitSec program and returned to the Michigan prison system.

Eagen asked Wershe about this in the interview. Wershe explained what happened and Musilli interjected, noting the Florida prosecutor had threatened to prosecute Rick’s mother and sister if he tried to go to trial. Arguably, Wershe was coerced in to pleading guilty. His court-appointed Florida lawyer had no experience in criminal cases. He was there to fulfill a legal requirement for sentencing...and to collect a fee from the court.

Wershe's plea agreement in Florida (shown above in a redacted version) plainly states the prosecutor will NOT file charges against his mother and sister if he agrees to plead "on the nose" as charged to racketeering, which guaranteed he would get more prison time. As Wershe saw it, he didn't have much choice. He was already doing time and he didn't want his mother and sister charged and tried, so he agreed to the "deal." A lawyer with criminal case experience would have told him to reject the plea agreement because the State of Florida didn't really have a case against his mother and sister. It was a scare tactic and it worked. Most of the other defendants were charged with a minor offense and got probation. The Florida prosecutor admitted to a local newspaper reporter that Wershe was a "fringe" player in the scheme, yet he got a heavy sentence after Michigan officials intervened.

Moreover, Florida charged Wershe with racketeering when the rest of the co-conspirators were essentially charged with possession of stolen property. Most of the others in the case were given probation and restitution. Wershe was given a five-year sentence to be served consecutively with his life prison term in Michigan. 

In other words, if he gets paroled in Michigan, he may still have to do five years in a Florida prison. But Wershe and his lawyers are fighting one battle at a time.

In the Florida case, there are suspicions Michigan officials urged the Florida Attorney General’s office to “throw the book” at Wershe as part of the continuing vendetta against him for helping the FBI prosecute public corruption in Detroit and Wayne County. On its face, the case against Wershe in Florida is totally out of sync with all of the other defendants charged in that case.

The Florida Attorney General brought charges against Wershe in Martin County. Wershe had never been to Martin County, but it is known as perhaps the harshest criminal punishment court in the State of Florida. When Wershe was brought to Martin County for arraignment and he told the county jail matrons why he was there, they told him, “Honey, they brought you here to this county because they want to hang your ass.” They meant that figuratively, but the jail matrons were being straight with him about harsh justice being the norm in their county. The Florida case is another battle for another day. For now, the focus is on Michigan.

Eagen told Wershe he would make his report to the full Parole Board at their next meeting, the second Friday in March. That’s March 10th. If the full board votes to consider parole, notice will be sent to the Wayne County Prosecutor and Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Dana Hathaway, the judge who presides over Wershe’s drug conviction. The prosecutor and judge have 30 days to respond.

The next step would be 30-day notice of a public hearing followed by a public hearing, perhaps in early June. The Parole Board could decide at that session whether to grant parole to Richard J. Wershe, one of their most notorious inmates and a potential poster child for everything that's wrong with the War on Drugs.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A crucial week for Rick Wershe, Jr. in his struggle for freedom

Richard J. Wershe, Jr. is scheduled for an interview with the chair of the Michigan Parole Board on Tuesday. It is a milestone in his quest to win parole after 29 years in prison for a non-violent drug conviction. Wershe is believed to be the longest serving inmate convicted of a drug crime as a teenager.

Come Tuesday morning, Rick Wershe’s stomach is going to be in knots. It’s guaranteed. He is scheduled to be interviewed by Michael Eagen, the chair of the Michigan Parole Board as a key step toward a possible parole from his life prison sentence.

Richard J. Wershe, Jr. -  Valentine's Day 2017 is a critical day in his life. (Photo: David Coates-Detroit News)

Wershe is one of the most controversial inmates in the Michigan Corrections system. He is a political prisoner and everyone knows it. It’s political because the Detroit/Wayne County political machine has done everything in its power to keep him imprisoned for telling the FBI about drug corruption among the politically-connected. The Informant America blog has documented this vendetta in considerable detail over the last two years.

The “system” is doing its best to make this parole evaluation process for Wershe appear to be business-as-usual. It’s anything but business as usual.

Wershe was due for parole consideration next December. That changed when his lawyers filed a second federal court action—a habeas corpus motion. It requires the State of Michigan to explain to a judge why this inmate has not been given a meaningful and fair chance for parole, when virtually everyone else in Michigan similarly tried and convicted has had their sentence reduced and most have been released from custody.

Less than a week after the habeas corpus (“you have the body” in Latin) motion was filed, the Michigan Parole Board announced they were moving up Wershe’s parole consideration by well over half a year.

Over the holidays Wershe watched in amazement as staffers in the Michigan Department of Corrections processed paperwork associated with his possible parole—a task they ordinarily would postpone until after the Christmas/New Year’s break.

The Parole Board announced one of its members—Sonia Amos-Warchok—would interview Wershe in behalf of the entire board in mid-February. This is a routine part of the process. One board member normally conducts a full interview with an inmate and reports back to the rest of the board.

What wasn’t routine in this case is that shortly after the first of the year, Michael Eagen, the head of the Parole Board, announced he was going to do the interview personally, instead of Amos-Warchok. There was no explanation of why the chair of the Parole Board decided to handle the Wershe interview himself.

But we know the clock is ticking on the habeas corpus motion, in which the onus is on the State of Michigan to come to court with compelling and convincing evidence why they have NOT given Wershe a fair shot at parole.

And there’s this: Wershe has another federal lawsuit in the hopper, one that was filed several years ago, claiming his civil rights have been violated. The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bars cruel and unusual punishment. The fact Wershe has been denied parole when everyone else in Michigan similarly charged, convicted and incarcerated has been given that opportunity is unusual punishment. He’s been treated differently than every other prisoner. There’s a strong argument to be made that that is unusual punishment.

Interestingly, that case is now bubbling in the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The federal judge on that case, Gordon Quist of Grand Rapids, has sat on Wershe’s civil rights case after initially trying to dismiss it. The Court of Appeals essentially told Quist, not so fast. Do some inquiry. But judges hate to be told what to do by appellate courts. Quist got a magistrate in his courthouse to conclude he’s right in doing nothing. The Court of Appeals disagrees. The case is moving forward—at the appeals court level.

The end result is that the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered oral arguments in the Wershe case in Cincinnati in mid-March. This seldom happens in such cases in modern times. Oral arguments is a misleading term. It’s more of a session where a three-judge panel gets to ask questions of attorneys on both sides. It’s another courtroom where some barrister from the Michigan Attorney General’s office is going to have to answer some hard questions. Questions such as, what the hell are you people doing to this guy? And why?

It all boils down to the State of Michigan moving as quickly as possible on the Rick Wershe case in the face of some potentially unpleasant courtroom encounters, while striving to make it look like business-as-usual.

As for Tuesday’s interview, it won’t be face to face. It will be conducted via video conferencing hookup. Eagen will be in a conference room at the Department of Corrections in Lansing while Rick will remain at the Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee, where he is imprisoned. Wershe is allowed to have one “friend” or associate with him. That’s going to be Ralph Musilli, his longtime attorney.

Musilli will not be allowed to talk or argue Wershe’s case. This is not that kind of session. Eagen will question Wershe one-to-one over the video link. He will want to know if Wershe has been “rehabilitated” and if he has people on the outside who will help him transition back in to mainstream society.

The essential question the Parole Board wants answered is this: Is Richard J. Wershe, Jr. a good “risk” for parole? Can he be released as a free man without any more run-ins with the law? Here’s a clue: he only has this one conviction. He is not a “repeat offender.”

Wershe should pass this test with flying colors. The staff at the Oaks Correctional Facility say Wershe would qualify as a “model prisoner” if there were such a thing. He is well-liked by the staff at the prison. He’s not a trouble-maker. Never has been.

If Eagen likes what he hears, he will report back to the full board at their next meeting and they will vote on whether to consider Rick Wershe for parole. If the answer is “yes” they will notify the Wayne County Prosecutor and Wershe’s drug-case judge that he is up for parole. If the prosecutor and judge don’t object, there will be a public hearing. In the cases of some violent convicts, victims sometimes show up at a public hearing to plead for denial of parole. In this case, an impressive number of people are ready to testify in Wershe’s behalf if there is a public hearing.

After 29 years in prison for a non-violent drug conviction handed down when he was a teenager, Rick Wershe may be granted parole sometime this spring.