Free Michael Thompson
As cannabis enthusiasts, we’re aware of the painful toll that the “War on Drugs” has taken on non-violent drug offenders. From racist mandatory minimums to long-term incarceration for minor possession offenses, cannabis and other drug users have had their lives destroyed by overzealous prosecutors and a heartless criminal justice system.
This “war” has disproportionately affected Black Americans. According to the ACLU, Black people account for 15% of America’s drug users, but 37% of drug-related arrests. 80% of the sentences for crack offenses are handed down to Black defendants, but two-thirds of crack users are White or Hispanic. And Black people are four times more likely to be arrested for a pot offense, despite nearly equal rates of use between White and Black people.
The situation becomes even more grim as state after state legalizes medical and recreational marijuana. Dynasties are being built and laws enacted to support a growing cannabis industry. Investors are getting rich selling a product that was vilified only a few years ago. All the while, non-violent cannabis prisoners sit in prison, waiting and hoping for release.
We’ve talked before about the Last Prisoner Project and their efforts to gain clemency and aid in reentry for cannabis prisoners nationwide. Now we’re working with them on one specific case — the unjust case of Michael Thompson. At the end, you’ll find some action steps that you can take to help Michael walk free.
In 1994, 43-year-old Michael Thompson sold three pounds of marijuana to a friend. He didn’t know that his friend had become a police informant. After Michael’s arrest for the marijuana charge, the police searched his home and found some guns, including an antique and one that belonged to his wife.
These guns were not used during the marijuana sale, nor were they on his person or even in his car during the sale. But since Michael had a previous record, the possession of the guns elevated the pot offenses under Michigan’s Habitual Offender Law. By stacking the charges, the crime was treated as though it had been violent, even though Thompson has never committed a violent crime.
Michael’s attorney, Kimberly Corral, told the Detroit Free Press, “They stacked the gun charges on top of the marijuana charge as if they were used in the sale of weed and in fact it wasn't.”
Even the prosecutor in this case may have acknowledged that Michael Thompson was no threat. The prosecutor and defense negotiated a plea agreement that would have dismissed three of the counts in exchange for a guilty plea on two others. The sentence would have been probation.
But the judge rejected the plea agreement. In 1996, Michael Thompson was convicted of three counts of selling marijuana and two counts of illegal possession of a firearm as a felony offender. By adding the gun charges, the judge was able to hand down a sentence of 40 to 60 years.
“Life” in Prison
As of this writing, Michael Thompson has served 25 years of his sentence. And he hasn’t been idle. He’s provided counseling to younger prisoners to help them succeed once they’re freed. And he organized a workshop to help men work through their feelings instead of resorting to violence.
He’s had to work through his own feelings since his incarceration, too. Both of his parents and his son have passed away since he began serving his sentence. And his daughter, Rashawnda, has grown up without him.
Michael has managed to serve his time with a clean disciplinary record. His corrections officers consider him a model inmate, reporting, “I’ve only observed Thompson as respectful towards the officers and other inmates.”
Hopes for Release
With a sentence of 40 to 60 years, Michael could still be 35 years away from release. To put that in context, the average sentence in Michigan for homicide in 2017 was 12 years. Michael Thompson has already served over double that — for a non-violent crime.
In fact, he’s the longest serving non-violent offender in Michigan state history.
And he’s serving a sentence for selling a product that is now legal. Recreational marijuana was legalized in Michigan in 2018. Just a few months later, Thompson’s latest parole hearing was denied, and his application for a commuted sentence was rejected by then-Governor Rick Snyder.
At the age of 68, Michael Thompson has recently been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, which puts him at much higher risk due to COVID-19. Advocates are concerned that for Michael to stay in prison any longer could be a death sentence.
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a progressive democrat, has said that “for conduct that would now be legal, no one should bear a lifelong record for that conduct.” Governor Whitmer may be the best hope for Thompson’s release. His legal team has submitted a new clemency petition, and they’ve requested expediting to get Michael released as soon as possible. Even Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton has joined Thompson's legal team to seek expedited clemency from the governor.
So What Can We Do?
We know a lot of you are feeling hopeless at this moment. Our justice system continues to fail us, particularly communities of color, and particularly our incarcerated community. But we can still make our voices heard as we fight for Michael Thompson’s life.
So here’s what you can do to help:
- Go to FREEMICHAELTHOMPSON.COM and follow the prompts to email Governor Whitmer to request that Michael’s request for clemency gets expedited before it’s too late.
- Call Governor Whitmer at (517) 373-3400 to second your request by phone.
- Call the Michigan Parole Board at (517) 373-0270 and urge them to grant parole to Michael Thompson, MDOC #176309.
- Share this blog post or FREEMICHAELTHOMPSON.COM on social media and ask your friends to take the above steps.
25 years for a non-violent offense is the very definition of “cruel and unusual.” Michael Thompson shouldn’t spend one more day behind bars.