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.

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