Michigan Man in Prison for Selling Cannabis in a Now Legal State

The Michigan Attorney General, Dana Nessel sent a letter to Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday stating that he strongly supports the commutation of Michael Thompson who has been serving decades in prison.

This is a rare move coming from the Attorney General. Nessel recommended that Thompson be released as he is currently being treated for Covid-19 at a Michigan Department of Corrections hospital. Thompson’s attorney revealed this.

Thompson, 69 was sentenced to 42 to 60 years imprisonment in 1996 for the sale of marijuana. His punishment was to last for decades because the law saw him as a “habitual offender”.

The sentence means he won’t be eligible for parole until the age of 87. A campaign for his release, which was tagged, “Free Michael Thompson” did get national attention even as advocates for criminal justice reform and advocates lament that his sentence is unnecessarily harsh.

Nessel has no authority to grant the Flint man a commutation. However, she tagged Thompson’s punishment as “egregiously disproportionate” to the offenses he committed while requesting that Governor Whitmer considers his commutation and release application “as expeditiously as possible”.

“While technically legal, the sentence imposed on Mr. Thompson is the product of a different time in Michigan legal history. And it is time that has passed”, Nessel said in the letter.

A commutation implies that a prisoner gets a reduction in his or her sentence. The process involves first that the Michigan Parole Board reviews the prisoner’s application. If the board sees the application as one that merits it, it will hold a public hearing on the case after which it makes a recommendation to the governor. The final decision is to be taken by the governor.

Thompson sold 3 pounds of marijuana to an undercover agent in Genesee County in 1994, and that led to his arrest. After the police searched his home, they recovered firearms, which many were antiques stored in a locked safe that were not in his possession during the time of arrest.

Asides the marijuana crime, Thompson was also got convicted for being a felon in possession of a firearm as well as possessing a firearm during the commission of a felony. Thompson had been a habitual offender. The habitual offender law in Michigan allowed for any term of imprisonment (up to life) for the felon-in-possession charge. But, according to Nessel, this usually takes a maximum of 5 years.

“Sentences of this length for selling marijuana are simply unheard of, even when accompanied by firearm offences.

“Given that recreational and medicinal marijuana is now legal in Michigan, allowing Mr. Thompson to continue serving the very draconian sentence, in this case, is even more distasteful”, Nessel wrote.

Kimberly Kendall Corral who is one of Thompson’s attorneys said Nessel’s request to Whitmer is “an indication of the severity of the injustice here”.

Corral said Thompson has an underlying medical team had requested in March that his application be expedited due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the parole board was yet to determine the merit of Thompson’s case since the application was submitted.

Thompson has been confined at Muskegon Correctional Facility, which is experiencing an outbreak of the viral infection. He tested positive to the COVID-19 and got hospitalized at MDOC’s Duane Waters Health Center in Jackson. According to his lawyers, he has complained of weakness and exhaustion.

Chris Gautz who is the Department of Corrections spokesman, commented on the issue and said the board is reviewing cases even though determination has not been made. He added that commutation hearings were postponed for a certain period because of COVID-19 and that the board gives priority to prisoner cases that are eligible for parole during the pandemic.