Fox Files: Missouri man faces life for marijuana use

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A 62-year-old drug convict has been in a Missouri prison for more than 20 years, ineligible for parole. Now there’s a fight to set him free.

Jeff Mizanskey said it’s only because of marijuana that he’s remained in prison while his parents have died and his grandkids have grown up. After 20 years, his story is creating a firestorm debate.

“I’ve seen some guys who’ve committed murder go and then come back and then go again,” he said. “I’ve seen other guys for drugs, hard drugs and marijuana, come-go, come-go, come-go, two or three times.”

Mizanskey said his case is so unusual, even regulators were caught off-guard when he applied for release years ago.

“Even the parole board, until that time, thought that I was supposed to (be eligible for) parole,” he said.

What did Mizanskey do when he heard that he was really sentenced to life without parole?

“Whew. What could you do? I about lost it, to be right honest with you,” he said.

Mizanskey cannot get out of prison because of an old Missouri law regarding prior and persistent drug offenders.

Mizanskey said it was his third pot conviction.

“It did look bad for real, but in reality, I wasn’t there for any big drug deal,” he said.

It was just before Christmas 1993 in Sedalia, Missouri. According to court records, Missouri State Highway Patrol officers went undercover after stopping a car coming from New Mexico with 14 bricks of marijuana. They set up a sting to see who was involved. Secret audio tapes recorded Mizanskey meeting reported couriers and saying someone had “10 grand set aside...”

“The only thing on my mind was, ‘Hey, it was close to Christmas, maybe I could get a couple ounces of that weed for myself,’” he said.

Missouri State Representative Shamed Dogan heard about Mizanskey’s life sentence and introduced legislation to set him free. Dogan said the law keeping Mizanskey locked up was repealed last year.

“Nobody else can get this kind of a sentence,” Dogan said. “So finding out that he was the only person under that kind of a sentence, I wanted to go back and see if we could do something retroactively to help him.”

“If you’re going to keep people in jail for these extended times, it has to be worth it.”

The former prosecutor, Jeff Mittelhauser, is now a judge. He recently wrote a four-page letter about Mizanskey.

“Twenty years ago ... a more likely question would have been, ‘How has he avoided prison for so long?’”

Mittelhauser noted other charges that didn’t stick, including ‘possession of LSD, (valium) and (tranquilizers). The judge also alleged a charge of attempted armed robbery when Mizanskey was a juvenile in Chicago.

“They wanted to make an example out of me because that way, whenever somebody else came up to go to court they decided not to go to court, instead they would make a plea bargain,” Mizanskey said.

Narcotics police Lt. Jason Grellner warns to remember the proper context.

“It’s the conversation that those that want to legalize marijuana want to have because they want to make Jeff Mizanskey the poster child for ‘everyone goes to prison for marijuana’ and that’s wrong,” he said.

Grellner is vice president of the National Narcotic Officers’ Associations’ Coalition.

“I don’t agree with the fact that we have 32,000 beds in the department of corrections and with talking with my cohorts, we know that 80 to 90 percent of crime is committed by people who have an addiction to either drugs or alcohol, and out of 32,000 beds we have less than 200 of them are treatment beds,” he said. “If you want to stop crime in this state or anywhere else in the United States - treat addiction!”

Mittelhauser’s letter also argues that we’re missing the important conversation, but he wrote “(Mizanskey`s time) served is sufficient punishment...with his public acknowledgment of guilt, I now support his petition for executive clemency.”

Would Mizanskey smoke marijuana again if he were released?

“If it were legal and only if it were legal,” he said.

Representative Dogan’s letter to Governor Jay Nixon has 128 signatures from Missouri congressmen so far. It’s expected to land on the governor’s desk next week.

Follow Chris Hayes on Twitter @ChrisHayesTV