A man who is seeking release from prison, after serving nearly 30 years of a life sentence for a drug conviction, has sparked a discussion about drug laws and the punishments they impose. What makes this story particularly notable is that the conduct that led to his conviction occurred when he was a juvenile under the laws of Michigan, where he lived and is now incarcerated. A state law in effect at the time mandated life imprisonment for certain drug offenses. The state has since substantially reformed that law, and this individual is reportedly the only person still serving a life sentence because of it. Despite that, prosecutors have opposed his efforts to seek a reduction in his sentence, and a state appellate court has ruled in their favor.
According to media reports on the case, law enforcement officers recruited the defendant as a confidential informant when he was only 14 years old. He reportedly helped bring down several major drug dealers and a group of corrupt Detroit police officers. He eventually became a drug dealer in his own right, though, and he was arrested in 1987 at the age of 17.
Prosecutors charged the defendant with possession with intent to deliver 650 grams or more of cocaine. At that time, a Michigan law—known as the “650-Lifer Law”—imposed a mandatory life sentence, with the possibility of parole, for the possession of at least 650 grams, equal to about 1.43 pounds, of cocaine. The defendant’s service as a police informant was inadmissible at trial, and the judge characterized him as “worse than a mass murderer.” People v. Wershe, 166 Mich. App. 602, 604 (1988). He began serving a life sentence in 1988, after he had turned 18 years old. Since then, most of the people he helped the police send to prison for various violent crimes have been released.
Michigan reformed the 650-Lifer Law in 1998, changing the mandatory life sentence provision to a minimum of 20 years. By comparison, the possible penalty in Texas for possession of 650 grams of cocaine is life imprisonment, or imprisonment for at least 10 years but not more than 99 years. Tex. Health & Safety Code §§ 481.102(3)(D), 481.115(a)(f). Under federal law, the penalty could be between five and 40 years’ imprisonment. 21 U.S.C. §§ 812(c)(II)(a)(4), 841(b)(1)(B)(B)(ii)(II).
The defendant’s parole was denied in 2003. Multiple court rulings have found that life sentences for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional, and a federal appellate court found in 2014 that, because of his age at the time of his conviction, the defendant could have a valid Eighth Amendment claim against the state. Wershe v. Combs, 763 F.3d 500 (6th Cir. 2014). See also Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. ___ (2010); Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ___ (2012).
In September 2015, a Michigan judge granted the defendant’s motion for relief from judgment, vacated part of the sentence, and ordered re-sentencing. People v. Wershe, No.87-004902-01-FC, order (Mich. Cir. Ct., Wayne Co., Sep. 4, 2015). The court, citing decisions like Miller, found that the life sentence violated the Eighth Amendment and the state constitution. Many states, including Michigan and Texas, have held that the prohibition on juvenile life sentences established in Miller is retroactive. See Ex parte Maxwell, 424 S.W.3d 66 (Tex. Crim. App. 2014). Unfortunately, the Michigan Court of Appeals disagreed in this case and reversed the lower court’s order, meaning that the life sentence remains in effect for now. People v. Wershe, No. 329110, order (Mich. App., Sep. 29, 2015).
These blog posts are meant to be illustrative only. Unless expressly stated to the contrary herein, these matters are not the result of any legal work of Michael J. Brown, but are used to communicate a particular point of view. Michael J. Brown does not claim credit for any legal work done by any lawyer or law firm either generally or specifically, with respect to the matters contained in this blog.
Since 1992, drug crimes lawyer Michael J. Brown has fought for the rights of people in west Texas facing state and federal criminal charges. Contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157 to schedule a confidential consultation with a skilled and experienced advocate for justice in the criminal court system.
More Blog Posts:
Habeas Corpus Petition in Infamous Texas Criminal Case Asserts “Actual Innocence”, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, October 30, 2015
Appellate Court Ruling Considers Whether Confession Was “Voluntary,” Reviews Implications for Defendant’s Fourth Amendment Rights, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, July 13, 2015
Clemency, Sentencing Reforms Offer Hope to Thousands of Nonviolent Drug Offenders Currently in Prison, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, July 23, 2014