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Commentary

Rank injustice around the case of "White Boy Rick"

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The Michigan Legislature is currently battling over something called “presumptive parole.”

The state house has passed a bill to make it harder to deny parole to eligible low-risk inmates who have served their minimum sentence.

There’s plenty of data showing this would make a lot of sense and eventually save our cash-strapped state millions of dollars.

The governor is a strong supporter of the bill. But it is in trouble in the state senate. Attorney General Bill Schuette is crusading against it.

There are few issues more tailor-made for any grandstanding politician than the chance to demand we keep the bad guys locked up forever.

There are few issues more tailor-made for any grandstanding politician than the chance to demand we keep the bad guys locked up forever.

Recently I was talking to a federal judge about this.

He told me that if I wanted to see rank injustice, I should look at the case of “White Boy Rick” Wershe, now 46, who has been in state prison since he was 18, and who may be there for the rest of his life.

That would make sense if he were a serial killer, but he was nothing of the kind.

He wasn’t the mythical teenage “drug lord” that he was called in lurid headlines.

Nor was he ever called “White Boy Rick” on the street; that was evidently a nickname popularized by narcotics cops and the media.  Instead, he seems to have been a kid in his early teens who was recruited to be an FBI informant.

Eventually, when the feds had no further use for him, Wershe decided to become a drug dealer on his own.

He was soon arrested with about 20 pounds of cocaine and a large amount of cash. He was barely 18 when convicted and sentenced to life without parole.

That law was later changed, but after a single parole hearing a dozen years ago, Wershe has been unable to get another.

Vince Wade spent years as an award-winning investigative reporter for Detroit TV stations. Now living in California, he has started a blog called Informant America, which is dedicated to getting justice for Rick Wershe. Wade doesn’t pretend that Wershe was a saint; he liked the high life, and fathered three children before he was 18 years old. More importantly, he did, in fact, set out to become a drug dealer.

But he did so, Vince Wade contends, only after he was recruited as a child by the FBI, who used him as an informant and abandoned him. Wade, who covered the case for years, is especially scornful of the media, whose frequently misleading portrayals of Wershe have contributed to a hugely distorted view of who he was.

Michigan’s Supreme Court may finally be about to weigh in.

Last summer, Wayne County Circuit Judge Dana Hathaway ruled that Wershe should be resentenced, “with consideration given to his youth and the circumstances surrounding the crime.”

But an appeals court panel reversed her ruling.

Attorneys appealed, and the state’s highest court is now expected to decide. For me, all this has little to do with Rick Wershe.

The real question is this: Should we take a kid in his early teens who was recruited as an FBI informant, copied the behavior they wanted him to learn, and lock him up and throw the key away?

I think simple justice provides the answer.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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