Infamous dealer 'White Boy Rick' could be freed, amid shift in drug sentencing

After 27 years behind bars, a notorious Detroit-area drug dealer could walk free later this month after being sentenced as a teenager.

Michigan Department of Corrections/AP
Richard Wershe Jr. appears in an undated photo. A judge is considering whether to lessen the sentence of the Detroit-area drug dealer, who has spent nearly 30 years in prison for crimes that go back to when he was a teenager. Wayne County Circuit Judge Dana Hathaway on Friday ordered a resentencing.

Richard Wershe Jr., a notorious Detroit-area drug trafficker who has spent nearly 30 years in prison since being sentenced as a teen, won a bid for re-sentencing on Friday.

Mr. Wershe, known as “White Boy Rick” while a young, flamboyant drug dealer in Detroit in the 1980s, has served 27 years in prison. He was arrested in 1987 and convicted of possessing more than 650 grams of cocaine at the age of 18. He was sentenced to life without parole. He has been eligible for parole in recent years due to changes in Michigan’s drug law.

Wayne County Circuit Judge Dana Hathaway said on Friday that changes in how the justice system now treats juveniles means that Wershe, now 46, deserves a new sentence.

Wershe’s attorney, Ralph Musilli, is asking the court to throw out his life sentence and resentence him “to time served, or a term of years that is proportional to the defendant’s lesser culpability and demonstrated capacity for rehabilitation,” The Detroit Free Press reported.

Maria Miller, a spokeswoman for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, told the paper that Wershe “has not provided a sufficient basis to invalidate his sentence.”

The re-sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 18. Mr. Musilli said his client could be released at that time, The Detroit News reported. Friday’s court hearing is the first time Wershe had been outside prison walls since he was incarcerated.

The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office said they plan to appeal Judge Hathaway’s ruling to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

About 20 of Wershe’s family members attended the hearing, according to The Detroit News, including his son Richard Williams, who was born shortly after Wershe was incarcerated.

“He has done his time,” said his mother, Darlene McCormick, after the hearing. “He’s been very good and he should be out.”

Mr. Musilli wrote in a court filing that the government used Wershe to infiltrate the drug trade in Detroit and that, at age 14, he was “recruited and introduced to the world of illegal drugs by the policing agencies of the government.”

While in federal prison in Florida, Wershe was accused of helping run a multimillion-dollar stolen car scheme. He pleaded guilty to two felonies, including racketeering, in 2006, Chris Gautz, a spokeman for the Michigan Department of Corrections, told The Free Press.

Wershe has also cooperated with FBI agents while in prison in hope of gaining parole, which has not happened. He was not granted parole in 2003, 2007, or 2012, Mr. Gautz told the paper. His next chance for parole is 2017, Gautz said.

Musilli argued in a court filing that Wershe’s sentence is unconstitutional under prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The United States is one of the few countries to sentence prisoners to life without parole. In 2013, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the sentence was “inhuman and degrading” and violated the European Convention of Human Rights.

In May, The Christian Science Monitor reported that decades of tough-on-crime laws have contributed to a sharp increase in prisoners receiving the same sentence as Wershe.

The number of prisoners who received life without parole sentences quadrupled between 1992 and 2012, according to a 2013 report from the Sentencing Project, with nearly 2,500 of the 50,000 inmates serving the sentence convicted of crimes that occurred before they turned 18.

President Obama and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers in Congress are now pushing to reform sentencing laws.  

Marc Mauer, director of the Sentencing Project, told The Monitor that there was also significant evidence suggesting older inmates like Wershe are much less likely to recidivate.

“People will debate if people are deserving of long term sentences ... and that’s a legitimate debate to have,” he said. “[But] we do know there are many people who have changed substantially after a couple decades of incarceration and don’t present nearly the public safety risk they did at the time of their crime.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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