Michigan court rejects possible early release for 'White Boy Rick'

Rick Wershe Jr will continue serving life sentence for 1980s drug crime under abolished law after judges overturned previously granted bid for re-sentencing

The Michigan inmate dubbed “White Boy Rick”, one of the last remaining individuals serving a life sentence under a since-abolished drug law, lost his chance for early release Tuesday.

Earlier this month, Wayne County circuit judge Dana Hathaway granted a request to re-sentence Rick Wershe Jr, who received a life sentence as a juvenile for possessing cocaine in the 1980s. In the years since, Wershe’s attorneys have repeatedly argued that his life term amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

But a three-judge panel of the Michigan court of appeals threw a wrench in Wershe’s bid for release on Tuesday, overturning Hathaway’s decision in a two-page order.

“Any attempt to re-sentence a defendant with a valid sentence ‘may infringe upon the governor’s commutation powers and intrude upon the parole board’s jurisdiction’,” the judges wrote in a two-page order. The decision also said Wershe failed to show any “retroactive changes in law” that would permit a re-sentencing.

Peter Van Hoek, appellate attorney for Wershe, told the Guardian he’s “disappointed” by the ruling, but plans to file an appeal to the Michigan supreme court within the next few weeks.

“It’s a difficult and complicated case,” Van Hoek said.

He added: “I think this case would’ve ended up in the supreme court either way, depending on who was successful in the court of appeals.”

The Wayne County prosecutor’s office, which appealed Hathaway’s decision, praised the court’s ruling.

“The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office has prevailed in the Michigan Court of Appeals and the defendant’s original sentence remains in effect,” said spokesperson Maria Miller in a statement.

Wershe’s case has drawn attention for its peculiarities. Brought into the fold as a police informant when he was only 14 years old, Wershe immersed himself with drug dealers and helped bring down violent kingpins, a corrupt ring of Detroit cops and a string of gang members. Nearly all have been released.

After Wershe spent two years aiding Detroit police, the world he came to know at the government’s behest was a lifestyle that, as a teenager, he couldn’t shake. He began selling drugs – mainly, according to Musilli, so he could stay alive – and was eventually arrested during a traffic stop, when authorities said they later found a stash of cocaine near his house. He was 17.

During a high-profile trial, Wershe received a life sentence in 1988 as a minor for possessing eight kilos of cocaine. The law, which mandated an automatic life sentence for carrying at least 650 grams of cocaine, was rolled back in 1998. At the time, the act was accountable for the sentences of more than 220 convicts. Since then, they’ve all been released – except Wershe.

“I sold drugs for 11 months ... without the government and the [Detroit police department’s] help, and you say I should die in prison?” Wershe told the Guardian last month.

“They’re sick. Something isn’t right.”

Wershe was denied parole in 2003, 2010 and 2012. His next hearing date is in 2017.


Ryan Felton in Detroit

The GuardianTramp

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