Appeals court gets briefs in ‘White Boy Rick’ case

Oralandar Brand-Williams

The Michigan Court of Appeals has received written arguments from both sides in the legal battle over whether Richard “White Boy Rick” Wershe Jr. should have his lifetime prison sentence reduced.

The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office filed its brief Wednesday, a day after appellate attorney Peter Jon Van Hoek filed his. It’s unclear when the appeals court will decide the case.

The case went before the appeals court after the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office requested a stay Sept. 4 of a Wayne County Circuit Court ruling that paved the way for Wershe, 46, to be resentenced.

Wershe argues he is “entitled” to be resentenced because the state’s criminal drug laws have changed since he was sentenced to a life sentence without parole in 1988 for possession to deliver more than 650 grams of a controlled substance.

The abolished laws Wershe was sentenced under were so-called “lifer” laws, without the possibility of parole, while current law allows for parole.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010 abolished so-called “lifer” laws, calling them “cruel and unusual punishment.”

In her ruling, Judge Dana Hathaway wrote, “Defendant’s sentence was modified by a statutory authorized order allowing him to be eligible for parole at fifteen years.

“That order was entered prior to (new case law) and at the time was the court’s only available option to mitigate the harsh sentence for this juvenile offender,” wrote Hathaway. “This court concludes that the defendant is entitled to resentencing. Defendant’s age was never considered when he was originally sentenced or when the order modifying his sentence was entered.”

Van Hoek’s 30-page brief asks the appeals court to lift the stay, arguing that the case “stands uniquely at the intersection of two evolving trends in the law — the sentencing of juveniles as compared to adults, and a legislative recognition of the undue and unfairly draconian sentencing schemes of the past regarding the offense in which Mr. Wershe was convicted.”

In an interview, Van Hoek said “there’s a recognition of treating juveniles differently than adults” in sentencing. He added that’s been a lot of research into the science of brain development of youngsters.

“They have to take into consideration criminal culpability, brain development and rehabilitation and that’s what Judge (Hathaway) was doing.”

Von Hoek said Wershe’s original sentence was improper and unconstitutional. He admits, however, that Wershe could still get sentenced to life in prison under new guidelines but the judge has the discretion to issue a shorter sentence. Under previous state law, life sentence without parole was mandatory.

In its six-page brief, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office said “it is possible ... that defendant may again be sentenced to life” if he is resentenced.

Prosecutors also argued that “binding precedent” from the appeals court mandates that a “defendant must be sentenced under the provisions of the (law) in effect at the time of the commission of the crime.”

The prosecutor office concludes: “The action of the (Wayne County Circuit Court) here is the wrong relief, in the wrong forum, for the wrong reasons. It should be promptly reversed.”

In the mid and late 1980s, Wershe was a fresh-faced teen who wore a page-boy hairdo and snappy suits while dealing drugs on the city’s east side, according to police. Authorities allege he joined the drug trade at age 14.

Wershe was turned down for parole in 2003, 2007 and 2012. His next scheduled parole board hearing is in December 2017.

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