By Ray Downs
Oct. 24 2013
For the past 20 years, Chris Mizanskey, now 33, has had to go to prison to see his father. But his dad, Jeff, is not a murderer or a rapist. He was, however, busted for possession of about five pounds of pot, his third marijuana-related felony. And in Missouri, if you get three drug felonies, even if it's just marijuana, you can get life without parole.
Meanwhile, during the past two decades, Chris has seen a sea change in marijuana laws, as several states have legal pot for medicine and two states have it for recreational use. So lately he has been wondering why his dad is sentenced to die in prison for something that most of America considers harmless -- and he wants Missouri Governor Jay Nixon to address his concerns by granting his father clemency.
"I think twenty years is more than enough," Chris tells Daily RFT. "My dad never hurt anybody. He never killed anybody. He made some mistakes, but he's paid more than enough."
Jeff's troubles began on December 18, 1993, when he drove his friend, Atilano Quintana, to a Super 8 motel in Sedalia to meet two men. Jeff says he thought they were going to meet two men to discuss moving furniture to New Mexico for Quintana's sister, who had recently moved there. To this day, he claims he had no clue Quintana was going there to buy a few pounds of marijuana.
And Quintana didn't know that the two friends who were in the motel with the brick of weed had just been busted the day before -- with thirteen bricks of marijuana -- and were coerced to participate in a sting operation to nab more buyers, which is why there were cops and surveillance equipment in the adjoining room. You can guess what happened next.
Although Quintana was in possession of the package when he and Jeff were arrested and the surveillance video clearly suggests he was the one making the purchase, he was given a ten-year sentence for possession with intent to distribute, a Class B felony.
For the same charge, Jeff, who was busted in 1984 for selling an ounce of pot to an undercover cop and again in 1991 for possession of more than 35 grams of marijuana, got life without parole. He had never before done prison time, never had a violent offense, and his pot convictions did not have aggravating factors, such as involving minors or an illegal firearm. But none of that mattered because of an archaic Missouri law.
Jeff was convicted under Missouri's "prior and persistent drug offender" statute, a Three Strikes-like statute that permits a court to hand out a life-without-parole sentence to somebody with three nonviolent drug offenses. But Missouri's law is unique in that it doesn't require at least one violent offense to lock up a person for life, whereas most states' habitual-offender laws do. California requires at least one violent offense. So does Georgia. And even Alabama, which doesn't require a distinction between violent and nonviolent felonies, paroled a man who had initially received a life without parole sentence for three nonviolent felonies -- the third of which happened to be a selling-marijuana conviction.
But when it comes to pot, Missouri can be stricter than Georgia or Alabama -- and Jeff Mizanskey might never get out of prison.
Jeff has tried the appeals process, but his family has been unable to afford private counsel, and he has either filed his own appeals or depended on overworked public defenders. Unsurprisingly, the appeals went nowhere.
But Chris, who still lives in Sedalia and works in a bar, has seen how Missourians, along with the rest of the country, have relaxed their views on marijuana: St. Louis decriminalized possession of less than 35 grams and U. City-based State Representative Rory Ellinger has said he wants to push a bill legalizing marijuana in Missouri like they do in Colorado. So about two years ago, he started attending Show-Me Cannabis meetings to talk to the pro-legalization crowd about his father's situation.
"What's happened to him isn't right," Chris tells Daily RFT. "And I just think people should know that this happens. My dad wasn't a violent man. People always tell me what a good guy he was. He worked hard. He doesn't deserve this. Who does?"
Chris' words got the attention of Tony Nenninger, a Bourbon-based lawyer who practices general law but takes up civil rights cases from time to time. He says he became interested in helping when he heard Chris' desire to get his father out of prison.
"He wants to get to know his dad," Nenninger says. "And when he came to the meeting, he felt desperate and motivated and I took note of it."
After reviewing the case, Nenninger decided to take it up, despite the fact that criminal defense is not his area of expertise, much less life-without-parole sentence appeals.
"What they're doing to Jeff," says Nenninger, who has twice visited Mizanskey in prison since taking the case, "is cruel and unusual punishment. That's really the only way to explain it."
In a letter to the governor, Nenninger writes:
Nenninger's hope is that he can get enough people to write letters to Nixon that his attention will be caught. That might prove difficult, given that when he first dropped off his own letter at the governor's office in June, the clerk told him that there are more than 2,000 clemency pleas on file, and Nixon has yet to grant a single one.I am not aware of any other person in Missouri who is serving a life sentence for non-violent cannabis-only offenses. It is no secret that all recent major polls indicate over 50% of Americans, including Missourians, favor the complete legalization of adult use of marijuana. We are not asking you to commit to this new majority preference for cannabis legalization, but rather as Governor of Missouri to represent the current population's modern sociopolitical trends to liberalize marijuana laws in considering the commutation of Jeff's sentence.
When Jeff was sentenced on June 19, 1996 the population and the judiciary were guided by hysterical misinformation about cannabis that has since been clarified by more extensive science. Modern judicial sentencing practices reflect this science and the population's recognition that cannabis is not the scourge of society that it was once thought to be. It is reasonable for you to commute Jeff's sentence consistent with modern sentencing practices.
But Nenninger is trying, anyway. He and Chris believe that if the governor looks at the case, he'll understand the absurdity of the situation.
"My father has seen people do much worse crimes and get out before him," Chris says. "It just doesn't make any sense."