(Photo composite: Mark Fusco; photos: Getty Images)

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Meet the Grandpa Doing Life Without Parole—for Pot

Jeff Mizanskey has never committed a violent crime, but the harsh drug laws of another era and an overzealous prosecutor may keep him behind bars for life.
Jan 12, 2015· 12 MIN READ
Vince Beiser has reported from more than two dozen countries for Wired, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and others. In 2014 he won the Media for Liberty Award.

Just past noon on Dec. 19, 1993, Jeff Mizanskey rolled his red Pontiac Firebird to a stop next to a long, low Mercury Cougar in the parking lot of a Super 8 motel in Sedalia, Missouri. Mizanskey, then a lean, mustachioed 39-year-old, hopped out and took a quick look at the back of the Cougar. Its license plate was from New Mexico, 600 miles away. Then he went around to the car’s front and checked out the windshield, on which lay a newspaper with the number “219” written on it. Mizanskey got back in his Firebird and drove off. He returned a few minutes later, this time with a guy named Atilano Quintana riding next to him. The two men parked the car. Then they knocked on the door of Room 219.

Two men, Hosea Reyes and Jorge Ibuado, were waiting inside. Ibuado opened the door and let Quintana and Mizanskey in. Quintana spoke with them in Spanish while Mizanskey sat on a desk chair, watching; occasionally Quintana would break off to speak with him in English. After a few minutes, according to court documents, Ibuado opened a zippered bag and took out a wrapped parcel about the size of a brick. It contained several pounds of marijuana. He handed it to Quintana, who handed it to Mizanskey. “About three or four,” said Mizanskey, hefting it.

There’s no mention in court documents of any money changing hands, but Quintana slipped the parcel under his jacket, and he and Mizanskey headed back out to the parking lot. Mizanskey was just opening his car door when a voice yelled, “Freeze!” Cops came rushing from all directions, guns drawn. Quintana dropped the packet and kicked it away, but it was too late for that.

It wasn’t the first time Mizanskey had been busted for pot—but he had no idea that the consequences this time would be so devastating. He would soon become one of at least two dozen people nationwide serving a prison sentence of life with no possibility of parole for marijuana—a crime that most Americans now say shouldn’t be considered a crime at all. He is one of the last prisoners of a decades-long war a majority of Americans are ready to quit fighting.

Reyes and Ibuado weren’t exactly criminal masterminds. They had been pulled over the night before by a Missouri state trooper who spotted them driving erratically down a dark rural highway. A cursory search of the car’s trunk turned up 86 pounds of pot crammed under the carpet and into the wheel wells.

Over the long hours that followed, the cops pressured the would-be smugglers to help bust their coconspirators in exchange for lenient treatment. By the time Mizanskey and Quintana showed up at the Super 8 motel room, state and local police had hidden a video camera inside it. They were listening to the whole transaction from the room next door.

The cops kept their promise. Ibuado got off with no charges, and Reyes spent only a year in county jail. Quintana, who according to an investigation by the Riverfront Times was the sting’s primary target, pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges and got a 10-year sentence. (He died in 2010, back home in New Mexico.)

RELATED: A State-by-State Guide to Cannabis Policy

Mizanskey was charged with “possession of a controlled substance with the intent to deliver and distribute.” His only previous brushes with the law were two arrests, years earlier, also for nonviolent marijuana offenses. He pleaded not guilty to this one, though, insisting he hadn’t known about the deal at the Super 8 until it was already going down. Whether or not that’s true, by all accounts he played the smallest role of anyone in Room 219. He hadn’t driven the car that brought in the weed, nor was he the one who carried it out of the motel room. Despite all that, he got by far the harshest sentence: life in prison, with no possibility of parole.

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In much of America, the decades-old war on weed is slowly winding down. Last November’s elections brought the number of states in which marijuana is fully legalized to four. Twenty-three states allow it for medical use, which in many places is essentially a fig leaf for de facto legalization. Poll after poll finds a majority of Americans—including Missourians—supporting legalization. Even the stodgy New York Times came out last summer in favor of ending the prohibition on pot.

Nonetheless, Jeff Mizanskey is one of a startling number of Americans still serving long prison sentences for pot offenses. (Even more are serving long terms for nonviolent crimes involving drugs other than marijuana.) An estimated 40,000 people are doing anywhere from one year to life in state and federal lockups on marijuana charges. Thanks in large part to three-strikes-type mandatory sentencing laws that swept into vogue amid the crack-and-crime hysteria of the 1980s, at least two dozen of those men and women, many of whom have no record of violence, are serving life without parole. They’ve been sentenced to die in prison for trafficking in a commodity that has been effectively decriminalized in most of the country.

“There’s a lot of tough days. A lot of days I’m just lying there and wondering how I got in here,” says Mizanskey. We’re sitting at a low, laminated wood table in a large visiting room, empty except for the two of us and a guard standing a polite distance away. It’s mid-October, and the place is decorated with “Happy Halloween” banners, grinning ghosts, and bad-luck black cats. Mizanskey has been locked up for 21 years, most of them in this maximum-security facility just outside the state capital, Jefferson City. Now 61, Mizanskey is a little paunchy but still fit-looking, with a white mustache and long gray hair neatly pulled into a ponytail. He’s missing several upper teeth, giving him a slightly rabbity look. Though he’s been interviewed by reporters before, he’s clearly ill at ease with the process, his legs jittering up and down.

Jeff Mizanskey tears up while being interviewed in the documentary

Here I Am. (Photo: Here I Am/YouTube)

“I’ve seen people that had murders go home,” he says. “I never would have believed you could get life-without for marijuana before all this came down.”

Regardless of his guilt or innocence in the 1993 pot deal, Mizanskey was never any kind of gangbanger or kingpin. He grew up in Chicago, the son of a car mechanic. At 18, he joined the Air Force, where he learned to operate heavy equipment, doing support work for B-52 bombers at a base in Missouri. He was honorably discharged four years later, in 1975. By then he’d married a local girl, and the two of them settled down in her hometown of Sedalia, a blue-collar burg of about 20,000 people. Mizanskey’s wife took care of their two boys, while he worked in construction.

He started smoking weed pretty young. “I never did drink,” Mizanskey says. “My dad drank a lot. I saw a lot of people get mean when they were drunk. That wasn’t for me.” Like a lot of potheads, he peddled a bit on the side. “I didn’t really sell,” he says. “I’d pick up a little extra for friends here and there—that’s it. I don’t think I ever had more than a half pound.”

Enough, though, to get him in trouble. In 1984, a nephew sold an ounce to an undercover cop—an ounce he’d bought from Mizanskey. The cops traced it back to Mizanskey, searched his place, and found a half pound of weed. Mizanskey was charged with possession of more than 35 grams and sale of marijuana—both felonies in Missouri. “I pled guilty,” he says. “Lawyers are so expensive. I just got it over with. I had young boys at home. It was more important to use the money on the kids, the family, than to try and fight in court.” He got off with five years of probation. “Never figured it would come back to haunt me.”

In 1991 he was nabbed again, when police, acting on a tip, got a warrant to search his house and found two ounces of pot. He made the same calculation and pleaded guilty again. This time he was sentenced to 60 days of work release—sleeping in the county jail but allowed to keep working during the days. Not a big deal. Except that now he had another felony on his record.

I’ve seen people that had murders go home. I never would have believed you could get life-without for marijuana.

Jeff Mizanskey, Missouri inmate

Two years later, when he was busted in the motel parking lot, Mizanskey knew the stakes were a lot higher. He was facing strike three under Missouri’s prior and persistent drug offender statute, a particularly tough type of three-strikes law. Instead of relying on a public defender, this time he wanted to hire a private lawyer. But he was flat broke—he and his wife had filed for bankruptcy the year before, to get out from under thousands of dollars in medical bills racked up when their son, who like the rest of the family was uninsured, suffered a burst appendix. Mizanskey sold his ’64 Chevy and his boat and borrowed money from his brother and cousin to pay for, as he puts it, “the cheapest lawyer possible.”

Pettis County, where Sedalia sits, was a lousy place to face drug charges. The prosecuting attorney, Jeff Mittelhauser, was a notorious hard-liner. A report issued by the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission in 2010 found that the county imprisoned convicted felons (as opposed to putting them on probation) at the highest rate in the state. Mittelhauser explained to the Sedalia newspaper that a primary reason for the high number of prison sentences he secured was his belief that drug sales “are not victimless crimes.”

Mittelhauser offered Mizanskey a deal: a guilty plea in exchange for 25 years. That’s standard practice; defendants plead guilty in nine out of 10 federal and state criminal cases. That speeds up the creaky wheels of justice. It’s also an invitation for prosecutors to abuse their power. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, “An Offer You Can’t Refuse,” many prosecutors “strong-arm” defendants by offering shorter prison terms if they plead guilty while threatening them with exorbitantly long ones if they insist on going to trial. The report documents a number of cases in which defendants who refused to plea-bargain drew eye-popping sentences. “In essence,” the report states, that “is the price prosecutors make defendants pay for exercising their right to trial.”

Mizanskey chose to exercise that right. Unlikely as it may seem, he claimed that he was an innocent bystander who was unwittingly sucked into a big drug deal. Quintana had just asked him for a ride to the motel, Mizanskey said, and for his help moving some furniture belonging to his friend’s sister, which a couple of other friends were going to haul away. When he got out of his car to look at the back of the Cougar, Mizanskey says, he was just checking to make sure it had a trailer hitch. Quintana testified in support of Mizanskey’s version; in a letter to the court he wrote that Mizanskey “is innocent of all charges stemming from my arrest…[and] he was only there because I had asked him for a ride.”

Nevertheless, Mittelhauser convinced the jury Mizanskey was a key player in the deal and that it was to be only the first of many that would have flooded central Missouri with hundreds of pounds of pot every week. With the video evidence, it didn’t look good for Mizanskey. The trial wrapped up the day it began. Guilty as charged.

Former prosecuting attorney Jeff Mittelhauser. (Photo: Facebook)

Sentencing came a month later. Mittelhauser had chosen to charge him under Missouri’s three-strikes law, meaning this conviction carried a sentence of life without parole. His lawyer implored the judge to impose a lighter sentence. The judge asked Mittelhauser’s opinion. “I agree that a life sentence is harsh,” he said. “That’s precisely why the legislature has prescribed it as a possible punishment for someone who finds himself situated the way Mr. Mizanskey does, with a lengthy criminal history and possession of a large amount of marijuana.… I believe a life sentence is called for.”

Mizanskey has been behind bars ever since. His wife divorced him years ago; he still talks regularly to his sons and siblings by phone. He’s become a grandfather six times over since he’s been locked up, but he’s met only two of the children; it’s hard for their parents to make the trip to visit him. “My parents passing away was probably the toughest moment. That and not being around my kids and grandkids,” he says, his eyes reddening. “People don’t realize—you’re not just hurting the guy who’s locked up. The whole family gets hurt.”

According to the Human Rights Watch report, between 1980 and 2013 the number of federal prisoners locked up for drug offenses skyrocketed from 4,749 to 100,026. That’s more than half of all federal prisoners. One former federal prosecutor told the report’s authors, “The public simply does not realize how many low-level guys are in [federal] prison.” Indeed, an analysis by the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that 40 percent of federal drug prisoners were either couriers or street-level dealers.

At the state level, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of inmates locked up for drug offenses has mushroomed more than tenfold since 1980, to more than 210,000. Missouri has kept pace. In 1980, the state held 5,726 prisoners, including 198 drug offenders. The number of drug prisoners today is almost as high as the total of all prisoners in 1980: 5,587 out of a total prison population of 31,537. One of the key reasons for that growth, according to the most recent annual report of the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission, is the toughening of drug sentences, even for simple possession. “The average sentence for drug possession,” the report notes, “has more than doubled since 1986 to nearly 5 years.”

We used to think slavery was OK. We used to think executing the mentally retarded was OK. Things change.

Tony Nenninger, attorney for Jeff Mizanskey

Mizanskey is the only inmate in Missouri serving life without parole for a marijuana offense, but there are others elsewhere around the country. A report the ACLU published last year listed a dozen inmates serving the same sentence, including a Louisiana man who was arrested for being the middleman in a $20 pot deal, and another who helped sell two $5 bags to an undercover cop. The website Life for Pot tallies at least a dozen more.

The tide, however, has finally begun to turn, at least a little. Partly because locking up so many people is unaffordable, more than a dozen states, notably California, have eased their sentencing laws in the last couple of years. Earlier this year the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets sentencing guidelines for federal prisoners, voted to reduce the penalties for most drug sentences, making thousands of drug prisoners eligible for early release. That move came after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder declared that too many people are being locked up for too long in federal prisons. Holder also recently directed federal prosecutors to avoid charging low-level, nonviolent drug offenders—people like Mizanskey—with offenses that automatically trigger mandatory sentences.

Missouri still has some of the nation’s toughest marijuana laws on its books, but things are shifting even there. The state legislature recently passed a bill, slated to take effect in January 2017, that eliminates jail time as a penalty for possession of less than 10 grams of weed. The bill will also end no-parole sentences for people convicted of a third felony marijuana conviction. That bill may be out-of-date before it even takes effect, though. Activists are working to get an initiative on the 2016 ballot that would make pot fully legal. Mizanskey makes no bones about where he stands. “I don’t believe anyone should be locked up for marijuana,” he says. “I think it should be legalized.”

The mellowing climate is giving Mizanskey hope. He has exhausted all his appeals, but with the help of a new lawyer, he’s taking one last shot: a petition for clemency from the governor. He’s not arguing about his guilt or innocence, just that 21 years in prison for committing a minor crime—which is no crime at all in many other parts of the country—is enough already. “We used to think slavery was OK. We used to think executing the mentally retarded was OK,” says his lawyer, Tony Nenninger. “Things change. And now it’s no longer OK to put someone in prison for life for pot.”

Mizanskey makes a pretty compelling case for his rehabilitation. In his decades behind bars, he has only been in trouble twice, for two minor rule violations back in the 1990s. Meanwhile, he has completed dozens of rehabilitation and self-improvement programs—everything from self-esteem classes to drug dependence therapy. He pulls a stack of certificates out of a worn manila folder to show me, adjusting his wire-rim glasses to see them better. He also works full-time in the prison furniture factory. He helped build the table we’re sitting at, as a matter of fact. “I try to teach the younger guys,” he says, “so they have something they can do when they get out.”

Early last year, Mizanskey’s son, Chris, set up an online petition calling on Gov. Jeremiah Nixon to give his father clemency. “All my dad wants to do is be a productive part of society, work and pay taxes, be with his family. And I want my dad back,” Chris wrote. The petition has pulled in nearly 400,000 signatures so far. His supporters rented a billboard near the Capitol last fall urging drivers to call the governor on Mizanskey’s behalf. Well over a dozen members of the state legislature have also signed on to a letter urging the governor to commute Mizanskey’s sentence. “[We]…do not presume the innocence of Jeffery George Mizanskey,” the letter reads, “but absolutely believe that the level of punishment which has been imposed upon this non-violent offender is unjust and inappropriate.” His incarceration, the letter points out, has already cost Missouri taxpayers more than $400,000. In December, Nixon pardoned nine nonviolent offenders, all of whom had completed his or her sentence. The governor’s office has not responded to requests for comment.

Even Mittelhauser, the prosecutor who put Mizanskey behind bars, now thinks clemency might not be such a bad idea. Mittelhauser, who was recently elected to a circuit court judgeship, did not respond to numerous emails and phone messages requesting comment, but a few months before his election he had this to say to the local TV news: “Think about it: It’s the harshest, most severe penalty that anyone has ever received for a drug crime in Pettis County. I would support his request for clemency if he would stop misinterpreting his criminal history and his involvement in the offense.” In other words, if he’d admit guilt.

Which Mizanskey seems to be edging toward. Though he insisted at trial he had nothing to do with the dope deal, he told me that he realized what was going on in that motel room once the negotiations got under way and hoped he might pick up “an ounce or two” for himself.

After all this time, does it even matter? “Even if he’s guilty of everything Mittelhauser says,” says Nenninger, “life without parole is still cruel and unusual punishment.”