Drugs

These Senior Citizens Are Destined to Die in Prison — for Marijuana

There are drug war excesses remaining to be rectified. Here are some of the most outrageous.

Marijuana is now legal in four states and the nation's capital, voters will likely legalize it in a half dozen more by year's end. Pot possession is decriminalized in a couple dozen more states. It seems to now be generally recognized that marijuana just isn't that big a deal. Yet, as hard as it is to imagine, there are still people who have been sentenced to die in prison for marijuana offenses.

That's right, sentenced to life without parole for non-violent marijuana offenses. The most famous marijuana lifer is Missourian Jeff Mirzansky, who walked out of state prison last year after a concerted public relations and political campaign by his family and supporters, but he is by no means the only one.

How many marijuana lifers there are is an open question. Only groups like Lifeforpot.com, started by Beth Curtis, the sister of a federal marijuana lifer, keep a tally, and that depends on someone reaching out to them. That's happened mostly with the federal system; how many people doing life for pot in state prisons is anybody's guess.

Progress is being made. Several of the prisoners featured on Lifeforpot.com have been freed, granted clemency by President Obama as part of an effort to reduce drug war sentencing iniquities by encouraging federal prisoners to seek clemency. The clemency program could free thousands of prisoners, but so far only a couple of hundred have been granted their freedom due to a huge backlog of more than 9,000 clemency petitions.

Below are some of the most egregious cases. All of these men are sentenced to die in prison for non-violent marijuana offenses. All of them have already served more than 20 years in prison for non-violent marijuana offenses. And all of them are now old enough to collect Social Security.

Meet the senior citizens incredibly deemed too dangerous to ever see the light of day again:

1. Leopoldo Hernandez-Miranda. Age: 76. Release date: Death. A Cuban fisherman with a limited education and little English, Hernandez-Miranda also picked up work as a day laborer. One of his bosses left him to keep an eye on a 3,100 pound stash of marijuana. Unfortunately, it was a DEA reverse sting, and the $50 a day employee took the fall. Called “the most deserving clemency candidate you’ve never heard of,”  Hernandez-Miranda still languishes in prison in part because of his limited ability to advocate for himself. He was 54 when he went in for his lowest of low-level roles in a non-violent marijuana conspiracy.

2. Kenny Kubinski. Age: 68. Release date: Death.The Vietnam combat veteran won three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star, but also found himself suffering from what he now believes was PTSD. He used marijuana for relief, got involved in marijuana conspiracy (and a little cocaine), years later, after starting his own construction company, he was arrested and sentenced to life in prison. That was 1993. His three children, who were all six and younger, have grown up without him.

3. John Knock. Age: 68. Release date: Death. Knock was indicted in 1994 as part of a loose group of entrepreneurs who imported marijuana in the 1970s and 1980s. He went down on conspiracy charges in a reverse sting operation initiated by the DEA and federal prosecutors using an indicted fugitive law enforcement official Knock had never met and ensnaring him through one of his neighbors from the 1970s. The sting took place in Florida, where Knock had never lived or worked. He was never accused of any crime of violence, but chose to go to trial rather than taking a plea bargain. He got two life sentences plus 20 years for exercising his right to go to trial.

Paul Free. Age: 65. Release date: Death.Free was arrested in 1994 while living in Mexico, where he was teaching English and organizing a school. The former manager of the Coronado Playhouse in San Diego, free was convicted of a marijuana trafficking offense in what his defense team says was a frame job by the DEA. By using a private investigator, Free was able to obtain affidavits from witnessed who testified to his guilt at trial, but who now say he is an innocent man, that they were coerced to testify against him, and that the DEA fingered him for a crime actually committed by someone the agency was protecting. Free was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He is recovering from a stroke suffered two years ago, but continues to appeal his conviction and is also seeking a presidential commutation. The crime for which he was convicted was non-violent.  

Phillip Smith is editor of the AlterNet Drug Reporter and author of the Drug War Chronicle.

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