Justice

Why One Man Has Spent 27 Years in Prison for a Nonviolent Offense

September 19th 2015

By:
Kathleen Toohill

When Richard Wershe Jr. was a teenager growing up on the east side of Detroit in the 1980s, he says he sometimes bought the other children in his low-income neighborhood ice cream, even shoes and bikes. Today, Wershe says, he runs into fellow prisoners in Michigan’s Oaks Correctional Facility who ask him, “Remember when you used to buy me ice cream?”

The teenage Wershe didn’t just buy ice cream for kids who couldn’t afford it. He splurged on luxuries for himself—mink coats, fancy cars—with money he didn't exactly obtain legally. Wershe sold cocaine, and under Michigan’s "650-Lifer law," was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he committed at the age of 17. Wershe has spent the last 27 years in prison.

Michigan’s "650-Lifer law," which was enacted in 1978 and in effect until 1998, mandated a sentence of life without parole for anyone convicted with possession or distribution of more than 650 grams of cocaine or heroin. Michigan Governor William Milliken, who signed the act into law in 1978, later called it the greatest mistake of his career.

“When you’re 17 or 16, when you’re a kid—I never thought this would still be affecting me when I was 46 years old. You don’t think that far down the line. Did I know that what I was doing was wrong? Absolutely,” Wershe told ATTN: from Oaks Correctional Facility. “I knew it was wrong, but I always thought I had a good moral fiber. In the neighborhood where I lived, I tried to do good things.”

Wershe’s story

When Wershe was 14, he lived with his father and sister on the east side of Detroit, a neighborhood drastically transformed from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s by the influx of cocaine. Wershe referred to it as “dirt poor.” According to Wershe’s childhood friend Dave Majkowski, when Wershe was a young teen, he desperately wanted to escape.

“He didn’t want to be in that neighborhood. He hated it there,” said Majkowski, whose own family moved to the suburbs in 1980. “If Rick would have gotten out of that neighborhood when we did, he would have avoided most of the trouble he got into.”

Wershe knew everyone in the neighborhood, according to Majkowski, and was especially impressed by the Curry brothers, who sold cocaine and had plenty of money to show for it.

Wershe’s father, Richard Wershe Sr., sold guns and was acquainted with several FBI agents. In 1984, Richard Wershe Sr. entered into an official relationship with the FBI as a paid informant. Yet the 14-year-old Wershe seemed to know more about the Curry brothers than his father did, and he began to work for the FBI—buying cocaine with money agents gave him and filling them in on major players in the drug scene. Wershe dropped out of high school in 1985. After the FBI ended the informant relationship with the Wershes in 1986, Wershe continued to sell drugs. Wershe dated the mayor’s niece, drove flashy cars without a driver’s license, and earned the nickname “White Boy Rick.”

“Rick didn’t have a real strong family support system, and he was a school dropout, so Rick did the only thing he knew how to do, because [federal agents] had trained him how to be a dope dealer,” said Vince Wade, an investigative reporter who covers Wershe’s story on his Informant America blog. “He wasn’t very good at it, but he got started. There’s no question that he was guilty. But not to the level that he’s been punished for.”

In 1987, when Wershe was 17, he was arrested for possessing eight kilos of cocaine. Police discovered the drugs near his house after a traffic stop, and Wershe was charged with possession with intent to deliver. At his trial, Wershe did not reveal that he had worked work as an informant—he says Bill Bufalino, his attorney at the time, advised against it.

 

During and after Wershe’s trial, the legend of White Boy Rick had grown larger than life—greatly blowing out of proportion, Wershe says, the magnitude of his drug dealing.

“It just was splashed all over the front pages for months in Detroit, and he became a crime legend, kind of like Al Capone,” Wade told me. “[The legend] took on a life of its own. Here is this white kid, not even 18 years old yet, who’s being portrayed by the cops and the prosecution as a drug lord and a kingpin.”

Almost three decades later, Wershe continues to sit in prison for a nonviolent crime committed as a juvenile. Many of Wershe’s supporters believe there is a calculated reason for this. In 1990, Wershe began to work with the FBI once again, this time from prison. He helped facilitate an undercover operation that led to the indictment of 11 police officers in 1991.

Retired FBI agent Gregg Schwarz worked with Wershe after he was imprisoned, and testified at Wershe’s 2003 parole hearing. He now advocates for Wershe’s release.

“This was not a violent crime in any way,” Schwarz told me of Wershe’s drug conviction. “There were no guns used in the commission of the crime.”

The day after Schwarz and other agents testified at Wershe’s parole hearing on his behalf, homicide detectives from the Detroit Police Department testified against Wershe. Wershe’s bid for parole was denied.

William Rice, a former homicide detective with the Detroit Police Department who retired in 2006, wrote in an affidavit in 2014 (sent to me by Wershe’s childhood friend Dave Majkowski) that he was ordered by supervisors to testify at Wershe’s 2003 hearing, even though Rice told the prosecution that he didn’t know Wershe.

“It is my considered opinion that the only rational explanation for the continued incarceration of Richard Wershe, Jr., and the consistent denial of even a parole board hearing since 2003, is that his file has been ‘red flagged’, which means that someone, or some group, has taken a special interest in his file,” Rice wrote in his 2014 affidavit. (Rice is currently serving time at Oaks Correctional Facility for an unrelated perjury charge.)

After he assisted the FBI from prison, Wershe was placed in protective custody in prison in Florida. Wershe was moved out of this protective custody and back to prison in Michigan after he was indicted in 2006 for being part of a car theft ring. Wershe said he pled guilty to prevent his mother from being prosecuted.

(For a longer and extremely compelling account of Wershe’s story, check out Evan Hughes’s piece, "The Trials of White Boy Rick," at the Atavist).

The costs of harsh drug sentencing laws

As recovery advocate Dean Dauphinais pointed out in an open letter to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, Wershe—who is the only juvenile sentenced under Michigan’s "650-Lifer law" still in prison—would likely have fared better had he been charged at the federal level.

Tim Allen, the actor and voice of the “Pure Michigan” commercials, was arrested in 1978 for possessing over 650 grams of cocaine. He cooperated with prosecutors and served just over two years—a far cry from the life without parole sentence the judge would have been forced to give Allen had he been charged under Michigan law. It’s also worth noting that Allen, who served 25 years fewer than Wershe has served so far, was an adult when his crime was committed.

“Here’s a kid who was 14, 15, 16 years old,” Evan Hughes said of Wershe, “and now he’s 46 and still in prison, never convicted of a violent crime, never really under the shadow of any suspicion about a violent crime. Also when you compare him to the other big players of the era, they’re all out of jail, and some of them have been out of jail for 20 years.”

Nate “Boone” Craft, a hit man who has admitted to more than 30 murders and shot Wershe in the stomach when Wershe was 15, served only 17 years in prison.

Wershe’s current attorney, Ralph Musilli, believes that Wershe’s punishment is grossly disproportionate to the crime he committed. Musilli hopes to get a trial judge to sentence Wershe to time served, rather than waiting for his next parole hearing, which is scheduled for 2017.

The biggest misconception the general public has about the criminal justice system, Musilli says, is that it’s honest. “In a lot of instances, particularly when there’s no violence involved, the penalties can be outrageous,” Musilli said. “The judicial system has lost all sense of proportion… and it has lost its contact with the people.”

Wershe may fare better in terms of a re-sentencing hearing if extenuating circumstances—in this case, Wershe’s lack of support at home, and the fact that federal agents encouraged his involvement in drug dealing—are taken into account.

“Who was in his life when he was a juvenile pointing him in the right direction? No one,” said Hughes. “When he came across law enforcement, did they tell him to go back to school? No, they told him the opposite. They told him, the more information you can give us about Johnny Curry and drugs and guns, the better.”

“The reality is that in the 1980s, when Rick committed these crimes, the average sentence for murder was eight years,” Hughes told me. “[The average sentence for drugs crimes was] a year or two. We have this perception that if you commit a serious crime, you’re in jail for life, but that’s actually not true.”

Sentencing juveniles to life without parole

In May, I interviewed documentary filmmaker Tirtza Even about her film "Natural Life," which tells the stories of juveniles sentenced to life without parole in Michigan. There are about 2,500 prisoners in the U.S. currently serving life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles.

Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, such as Graham v. Florida (2010), which ruled that sentencing juveniles to life without parole was unconstitutional for non-homicide offenses, and Miller v. Alabama (2012), which ruled that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional, have given many of these 2,500 prisoners reason to hope. States have been left to decide whether these rulings apply retroactively, meaning that sentences were not automatically commuted.

Even told me in May that she believes states need to re-examine the practice of charging and sentencing youth as adults.

“They are not adults,” Even told me via email. “They are kids. They are ethically not yet fully formed and behaviorally not fully developed, and are susceptible to pressures that adults are more immune to. We should consider their potential growth and change and apply a charging/sentencing structure that takes those into account.”

Wershe’s work as a drug dealer began when he was only 14 (he says he never sold drugs prior to becoming involved with the FBI), and with his father’s knowledge and cooperation.

“We now know a lot more than we did about juveniles and the fact that impulse and brain development aren’t what they are when you’re an adult and I think a lot of that should be taken into account,” author Evan Hughes told me. “When you talk to Rick now, you hear someone who’s a lot more mature and it’s sort of impossible to imagine him returning to a life like that.”

The prefrontal cortex of the brain, which contributes to decision-making and controlling impulses, continues to develop until early adulthood. According to the authors of the article “The Teenage Brain: Adolescent Brain Research and the Law” published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science in 2013, “In short, the hypothesis, which is based on neurobiological research, is that teenagers are attracted to novel and risky activities, including criminal activity, particularly with peers, at a time when they lack the judgment to exercise self-control and to consider the future consequences of their behavior.”

Wershe’s chance of a governor commutation may be low: Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has commuted only five sentences since 2011, and all were for prisoners with terminal illnesses. In July, he denied the request for commutation of Saulo Montalvo, who is currently serving life without parole for driving the get-away car, as a 15-year-old, during a robbery-turned-murder in 1996.

The fight for early release.

The 27 years that Rick Wershe Jr. has spent in prison have thoroughly disabused him of the notion that the American justice system provides “equal justice under law,” as is inscribed on the front of the United States Supreme Court. Nor, Wershe says, do prisons put much effort into rehabilitation. Wershe told me that years ago, he had the opportunity to take college courses with professors, but this is no longer an option.

“If you want rehabilitation, you have to do that yourself,” Wershe said. “Prison’s pretty much now nothing but a warehouse.”

Musilli said his previous petitions to the governor’s office—three petitions in the last six years—have gone nowhere. Yet despite the interminably long stretch of time spent waiting for another parole hearing, Wershe’s chances for release are looking better than they have in years.

On September 4, Wershe appeared in the Wayne County Circuit Court in front of Judge Dana Hathaway. Judge Hathaway stated in her opinion, according to Wade’s blog, “This court finds that Defendant’s original sentence was unconstitutional.” Judge Hathaway ruled that because drug laws have changed drastically since Wershe was first convicted, he should be granted a re-sentencing hearing.

According to Musilli, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office filed a motion to stay Wershe’s re-sentencing hearing with the Michigan Court of Appeals. On October 14, Musilli says, the stay will either expire or be renewed. Musilli plans to file responsive pleadings by September 27 with the help of appellate counsel appointed to his office by the trial court.

Wershe is hopeful that increased media attention surrounding his story will bring greater scrutiny to those responsible for deciding his fate. Three film projects about Wershe are currently in development, and Wershe is actively involved in meeting with producers. Wershe has many supporters in Michigan, and across the country. He was named the inmate most deserving of clemency in Michigan by ClemencyReport.org, and a Change.org petition advocating for his release has 2,034 signatures.

“It’s a little bit overwhelming at times,” Wershe said of the media frenzy. “At the same time, to sit down with people [from the media] and talk to them, and to see their passion and compassion at the same time, I greatly appreciate it.“

If he is released, Wershe said, he hopes to do advocacy work and speak out about his experience. He also hopes to spend time with his children and grandchildren, who he says he speaks to frequently but doesn’t get to see very often.

“You know what’s sad? I never got to do any of the parental things with my kids,” said Wershe. “My kids went through a lot because of this too, because of the mistakes I made as a kid. They didn’t ask for me to be their father.”