On a dark rural highway, a week before Christmas in 1993, two Hispanic males barreled east through Missouri in a 1978 Mercury Cougar. Stashed in the trunk was nearly 100 pounds of marijuana.
It had taken the men fourteen hours to drive up from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and as Jorge Ibaudo napped in the back seat, Jose Reyes steered toward their final destination — a Super 8 hotel in Sedalia some 40 miles away.
Reyes didn't notice trooper David Schwalm with the Missouri Highway Patrol. That stretch of Highway 50 doesn't get much out-of-state traffic, and something about the car with New Mexico plates seemed suspicious — a hunch Schwalm would confirm moments later when he pulled over the vehicle. Neither Reyes nor Ibaudo could speak much English, but what they did manage to relay — that they were traveling to Sedalia to "meet a friend" — was fishy enough for Schwalm to ask them to pop the trunk. Today the state trooper remains in disbelief about what he saw as he lifted the lid.
"It was like some teenagers tried to do it for the first time," Schwalm says of the bricks of marijuana he easily found tucked under the trunk's carpeting and sloppily stuffed into the rear fender wells.
Back at the Johnson County Sheriff's Department, corporal James Wingo of the highway patrol's narcotics unit sat Reyes and Ibaudo down and offered them a deal: Cooperate with police to nab the buyer, and the prosecutor might go easy on them. Hell, there was even a possibility they'd be let go like it never happened.
Reyes cooperated right away, according to Schwalm, telling the cops that the drugs were destined for a man named Atilano Quintana. A quick call over to the Sedalia Police Department confirmed that Quintana was the real deal.
"Customs was going after Quintana," says Wingo, now a sergeant with the highway patrol. "Customs was investigating him at the time, and [Reyes and Ibaudo] were sources for Quintana, and they were bringing him the weed."
Reyes and Ibaudo were scheduled to meet Quintana at the hotel the next morning. Wingo — now working with the Sedalia police — encouraged them to do so, but only after the cops set up surveillance equipment in the adjoining hotel room. Around 8 a.m. a truck pulled into the Super 8 parking lot and two men exited: Quintana and a skinny white guy with a thick mustache. One of the Sedalia officers recognized the second man as Jeff Mizanskey, a local pothead with two prior arrests for weed who was known to sell a bag every now and then.
Sedalia police didn't know Mizanskey was coming, but they were glad he did.
"Mizanskey wasn't a target or who we expected to be showing up," Wingo recalls. "It was the Quintana guy — that's who [Reyes and Ibaudo] said they were taking the weed to. Mizanskey just sweetened the pot. He was well-known in Pettis County."
The cops watched Quintana and Mizanskey walk into the room. Mizanskey took a seat on a bed as Quintana talked business in Spanish with the two men. None of the Sedalia cops spoke Spanish, but it was not hard to understand what was going down.
To Wingo it looked like Quintana was the one conducting the deal. Mizanskey was there for backup.
"You do a dope deal, you bring your extra hand around," Wingo says. "For lack of a better word, [Mizanskey] was his 'helper,' I guess. They were just part of a conspiracy, and Mizanskey worked for Quintana."
On their video feed the cops witnessed Quintana pass Mizanskey a brick of weed and ask him how much he thought it weighed.
"About three or four," Mizanskey responded, as he handed it back. Minutes later Quintana and Mizanskey walked out of the room and climbed back into the truck. Police would surround the vehicle moments later as it drove away from the hotel.
Twenty years later and Ibaudo's and Reyes' whereabouts are unknown, though the Missouri Highway Patrol confirms that Ibaudo was let go without charges and Reyes spent a year in the county jail. Quintana — the man authorities initially targeted — got a ten-year sentence, did his time and moved back to New Mexico where he died in 2010. As for Jeff Mizanskey, the person who arguably played the most minor role inside the Super 8 that December morning, he got a life term in prison.
Today Mizanskey remains in prison, where he holds the distinction of being the only Missouri inmate serving a life sentence without parole for nonviolent marijuana offenses.
On a recent November morning at the Jefferson City Correctional Center, Jeff Mizanskey shuffles into the empty, florescent-lit visiting room accompanied by a female prison guard.
At the age of 60 Mizanskey walks with a limp and stands a slight five-foot-eight. He carries with him a bit of a paunch and wears the same mustache he did twenty years ago, though the whiskers have long faded to gray. A baseball-size lipoma protrudes out of his left forearm. The benign tumor started out about the size of a nickel fifteen years ago, but prison doctors at the time weren't concerned.
"We got a new doctor, and he said it should have been removed back then," explains Mizanskey of the unsightly growth. "But if they removed it now, it might do some damage because there might be nerves grown inside it."
His battered physical condition notwithstanding, Mizanskey recently has become something of a poster boy for one of the hottest topics of the day — marijuana reform. Last month his plight went viral — first on pro-legalization websites and later in mainstream media such as Huffington Post — when news broke of his request that Governor Jay Nixon void his sentence.
"Since I've been here in prison, I've met lots of people in for murder, rape, robberies, all kinds of violent crimes. I've seen a lot of them go home on parole," says Mizanskey, whose wife divorced him and whose two sons reached adulthood during his time behind bars. "Don't I ever get a chance?"
In his two decades in prison, 21 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized the sale of medical marijuana, and 2 of those states have passed laws allowing for its recreational use, and cities such as St. Louis and Detroit have decriminalized small amounts of the drug. Mizanskey, meanwhile, was sentenced under Missouri's Prior and Persistent Drug Offender statute, a decades-old law that enables judges to impose prison terms ranging from ten years to life in prison without parole for those convicted of three drug-related felonies.
Other states have three-strike laws for nonviolent offenders, but Missouri is unique in that it has "a separate persistent felony law just for drug offenses that ratchets up the extreme sentences more quickly than the regular persistent felony law," says Chloe Cockburn, a civil-rights attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in New York. "As far as we know, Missouri is the only state that does this."
Seated in the prison waiting room, Mizanskey tearfully recounts how he first learned the true magnitude of Missouri's Prior and Persistent Drug Offender statute. It occurred six years into his prison term in 2001. Until then, Mizanskey says, he had been under the belief that his sentence came with the chance of parole. He says he even received notice from the parole board informing him that he would be eligible for release in 2005. It was only when an appellate-level public defender began preparing the paperwork for Mizanskey's parole that the prisoner discovered the awful truth.
"The attorney put down in there that I had life without the possibility of parole, and I said, 'Well, that's gotta be wrong. They didn't tell me any of that," Mizanskey recalls.
More paperwork brought confirmation from the Missouri Department of Corrections. Mizanskey was indeed sentenced to die within its walls.
"When I got the letter back from the parole board, I was ruined," he says. "You get information like that — there's not really a whole lot you can say about it. It's the end of the world."
Mizanskey wasn't the only one confused about his sentencing. So, too, was the lawyer who represented him at trial.
"I wasn't aware it was life without parole. I thought it was a life sentence," says attorney Randall Brown Johnston when reached by phone last month. "This is coming completely out of left field."
Jeff Mizanskey readily admits that he was something of a stoner back in the day.
"I did construction work, and I'd be sore when I got home. So I smoked a joint," Mizanskey explains. "I didn't drink. I didn't like to drink because my father was an alcoholic and I had seen that growing up. So I smoked."
Occasionally he'd also sell a bag of weed.
"Just friends, people I knew, to supplement my own habit," he says.
One of those drug sales would lead to his first felony. In 1984 Mizanskey sold an ounce to a relative, who ended up selling the bag to an undercover cop. The police linked the bag back to Mizanskey and obtained a search warrant. Inside his home police found about a half-pound of pot and arrested Mizanskey for felony possession of over 35 grams of marijuana and felony sale of a controlled substance. Rather than pay to fight it in court, Mizanskey pleaded guilty and got five years of probation.
That was strike one.
Seven years later Mizanskey was off probation and doing well for himself. He was still married then and active in his boys' lives. He had started his own construction business and managed a small crew that did remodeling jobs for homeowners and businesses. One of his biggest jobs was developing an apartment complex. Talking about it more than two decades later, Mizanskey remains proud of the work he did.
"We built a pretty nice place there," he says. "Swimming pool, hot tub, indoor tennis court, indoor garage and 27 apartments made out of a derelict building that was sitting around."
After the project was completed, Mizanskey says the owner asked him to take care of it by supplying needed repairs and showing apartments to prospective tenants. Mizanskey took on the work while continuing to run his construction business. And after a hard day's work, he continued his habit of smoking pot.
In December 1991 police in the small town of Sedalia (population 20,000) got tipped off that Mizanskey was still holding and got a warrant to search his home. This time they discovered around two ounces (approximately 64 grams) of marijuana — a smaller amount than he had had in possession in 1984 but still in excess of the 35 grams of marijuana needed for felony charges. Again Mizanskey pleaded guilty.
That was strike two.
"We were gonna fight it, but to fight it, it takes a lot of money," Mizanskey says. "If you ain't got money, you can't fight it. [My lawyer] advised me to do another plea."
Taking the plea deal seemed like a good idea at the time. Mizanskey would have another felony on his record, but he'd only have to do 60 days in the county jail on work release, meaning he could keep his company going and earn money for his family. That sounded safer than paying a lot of legal fees and still likely getting an unfavorable outcome in trial.
"[The] lawyer told me that it was in my house, so there wasn't much I could do," explains Mizanskey.
Two years later Mizanskey would walk into that Super 8 hotel — his third strike in ten years.
This time around Mizanskey sensed he was in more significant trouble. He sold his '64 Chevy and his fishing boat, and several relatives pitched in to pay for the legal services of Randall Brown Johnston, a Columbia-based criminal-defense attorney with three years of experience as a prosecutor.
The first thing Johnston did was request a new judge. The Pettis County judge assigned to the case had heard Mizanskey the last time he was busted. Mizanskey recalls the judge telling him, "If I ever see you in my courtroom again, I'll put you away."
Mizanskey and his lawyer didn't want to test the judge on that. Unfortunately for them, their new judge was Benton County's now-deceased Theodore B. Scott, known for being a hard ass, especially with drug cases.
"Scott was kind of notorious. I hate to speak ill of the dead, but he was known for being a very harsh judge," says Dan Viets, a criminal-defense attorney and the coordinator of NORML's Missouri chapter. "I changed judges whenever I found myself in his court."
Just as tough was Jeff Mittelhauser, Pettis County's up-and-coming prosecutor. Johnston asked Mittelhauser about a plea deal, but the state's attorney wasn't feeling very lenient.
"He offered 25 years [without parole]," recalls Johnston, who figured he could get his client a lighter penalty at trial.
Although Mizanskey was indicted for possession and intent to distribute roughly five pounds of marijuana, Mittelhauser painted him at trial as a big-time dealer with Mexican connections who had grander plans than just the 90-plus pounds in the back of Reyes' Cougar. Had the strong arm of law not gotten ahold of him first, Mizanskey would have brought 100 pounds of marijuana per week into the good community of Sedalia, Mittelhauser argued.
Johnston, meanwhile, painted Mizanskey as a victim of happenstance who was never supposed to be at the Super 8 that day. As Mizanskey told it, he was simply doing a favor for a friend named Chris Whittington, whose ex-girlfriend had recently moved back to New Mexico. Quintana was the girlfriend's brother and was in Sedalia to move his sister's stuff back to her home state. Mizanskey agreed to assist with the move and stop by the Super 8 to pick up two more men Quintana had enlisted for the job. Mizanskey claims that he thought the package Quintana gave him to inspect inside the hotel room was Mexican food — not marijuana.
"It smelled like chiles," he recalls.
Police also videotaped Mizanskey making a phone call from inside the hotel room in which he could be heard discussing money. Mizanskey says the phone conversation was about some used cars he was planning to buy with a friend.
At trial Johnston called to the stand Quintana, Whittington and the guy buying the used cars, all of whom vetted Mizanskey's description of events. Finally, Johnston wrapped up about five pounds of kitty litter in the same fashion as the marijuana brick in order to demonstrate to the jury that anything could have been inside that package. Why not Mexican food?
But the Benton County jury didn't believe Quintana, Whittington or the kitty-litter demonstration. It found Jeff Mizanskey guilty of possession of more than 35 grams of marijuana and intent to distribute a controlled substance.
The trial lasted less than a day. Under the Prior and Persistent Drug Offender statute, the jury was kept in the dark about what sentence the defendant could get. One month later Judge Scott accepted Mittelhauser's recommendation and sentenced Mizanskey to life in prison.
Johnston appealed the verdict on grounds that the judge should have allowed into evidence the fact that Mizanskey had three grams of marijuana in his pocket when he was arrested. The "lesser included offense," Johnston hoped, would show the jury that Mizanskey was just a harmless toker in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was guilty of a misdemeanor, yes, but not a felony.
Johnston won the appeal, and the case would be retried. This time Johnston figured he'd try the case in Pettis County rather than have another go in Benton County with Judge Scott. Mittelhauser agreed to the change. But Judge Scott wouldn't let the case go — a rare occurrence, especially when both attorneys involved agree, Johnston explains.
"It really bothered me that the judge would not let go of the case," Johnston says. "He wanted the case because, I think, he wanted a second chance to sentence my guy."
Johnston adds that he tried to get Scott disqualified from the case, but the Western District Court of Appeals denied his request. The trial ended up being a repeat loss. This time the jury deliberated for just 40 minutes before finding Mizanskey guilty of possessing and intending to distribute the five-pound brick.
At the sentencing Johnston asked the judge to be more forgiving this time, arguing under the mistaken belief that his client faced a 30-year "life" sentence with the possibility of parole.
"I think that 30 years in prison for that is not fair and just. I would urge the court to find some lesser or middle ground in a range that's available to the court," Johnston told the judge.
Mittelhauser disagreed and pressed Scott to impose the life sentence.
"I agree that a life sentence is harsh and burdensome," Mittelhauser told the judge, "and I think 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."
Scott sided with Mittelhauser and again sentenced Mizanskey to life in prison.
Today Mittelhauser remains the top prosecutor in Pettis County, and he has little sympathy for Mizanskey or Johnston and their claim that they didn't realize the sentence was for life without parole.
"That was the gorilla in the room," says Mittelhauser, who notes that Mizanskey could have accepted the 25-year plea deal. "He rolled the dice — and that's his prerogative, to go to trial — but he did, and this is what happened."
Ronald Reagan's War on Drugs was in full swing in 1989 when state senator Harold Caskey, a Democrat from the western Missouri town of Butler, cosponsored Missouri's Prior and Persistent Drug Offender law. In hindsight, though, Caskey isn't so sure that the law is a good one, especially considering Mizanskey's incarceration.
"I can't believe [life sentences for marijuana] was intended," says the 75-year-old former lawmaker who retired from the state senate in 2004. "Looking back at it now, I wouldn't vote for it. You see these states passing marijuana laws, and it indicates that marijuana is not as serious as it once was."
Yet Caskey wasn't alone at the time he sponsored Missouri's three-strike law for drugs. In the crack-cocaine hysteria of the 1980s, politicians across the nation were eager to display their "tough on crime" bona fides.
"There was a sea change in the way that the public and politicians thought about crime in the 1970s and 1980s," says Greg Mermelstein, a division director with the Missouri State Public Defender System. "These prior and persistent laws, by and large, were inventions of that era because there was a public perception — frankly, often wrong — that people were committing heinous crimes and receiving very short sentences. And as a result, there just became this tough-on-crime movement where everyone wanted to enact tougher laws to make sentences longer and longer."
No state agency keeps tabs on how many Missouri inmates have received sentences of life in prison without parole specifically for nonviolent drug offenses. Riverfront Times could find only three Missouri prisoners besides Mizanskey who are currently locked away for life without parole under the Prior and Persistent Drug Offender statute. And all three of those were found guilty of meth charges.
Although life sentences are relatively rare, decades-long sentences for small amounts of drugs are not because the minimum sentence a judge can hand out under the statute is ten years.
"One of the major effects of the laws is that it always increases the punishment," Mermelstein says. "And what happens is that, in individual cases, the punishment doesn't always fit the crime."
Examples include a man from the bootheel who earned a 25-year stint for selling $20 of crack to an undercover cop, and a St. Louis man slapped with a 15-year sentence for selling one rock's worth of crack.
Advocates for reforming Missouri's drug laws also point to the financial price of imprisoning nonviolent offenders. The annual cost to feed and house a Missouri inmate is about $22,000. Keeping Mizanskey locked up has already cost Missouri taxpayers more than $400,000. And they'll likely be on the hook for a few hundred thousand dollars more to incarcerate him until his death.
But to the man who prosecuted Mizanskey, the sentence remains just.
"I do not think the sentence is excessive," says Mittelhauser, who still remembers Mizanskey's case, even if he's a bit fuzzy on the details.
"Considering his numerous prior convictions involving the distribution of controlled substances and considering that he had a connection to, if not Mexico, at least the Southwest United States to bring in 100 pounds a week of marijuana to distribute, yes, I believe his sentence was a fair one."
(Mizanskey, for the record, was never on trial for 100 pounds of marijuana or any conspiracy to bring in that amount. There was also no evidence presented at his trial that he had connections to Mexico or the Southwest other than the fact the guy he gave a ride to was a Latino from New Mexico.)
If the Pettis County prosecutor were to try another case like Mizanskey's, he would again aim for a life sentence without parole. That is, if anyone is foolish enough to take it to trial.
"I would hope I wouldn't have to try a case like that in the future because the defense attorney would look at Mizanskey's case and say, 'This is what could happen,'" says Mittelhauser.
If Jeff Mizanskey were eligible for parole, odds are he'd get it.
In the visiting room of the Jefferson City Correctional Center, he sits at a table he helped make in the prison furniture factory. He has been employed there full-time going on sixteen years and has worked his way up to foreman at a wage of 73 cents an hour.
"We do the staining and the finishing," Mizanskey says with some pride. "We did all the tables in this room."
It is work he enjoys and is good at, according to letters of recommendation from his supervisors that Mizanskey carries with him in a manila folder.
He takes out more papers from the folder and spreads them across the table. They're certificates for programs he has completed in prison. He's taken classes on everything from understanding the impact of violence ("I've never been a violent person, but I figure there was something I could learn.") to improving one's self-esteem ("Just about everyone in here's got low self-esteem.").
"I think I've been through just about every program they offer in here," says Mizanskey. "But it ain't anything I had to do; it's something I did myself because I thought it would help."
But a clean prison record, steady work history and a willingness to take advantage of prison programs to better himself doesn't take time off a sentence of life without parole.
It's a frustrating situation not only for Mizanskey, but for his family as well.
Chris Mizanskey was thirteen years old when police arrested his dad outside that Super 8.
"We missed out on a lot not having him around," says Chris of his dad's prison term. "He always took us fishing and hunting, he made sure we went to school, he did all those things. If he was around, I wouldn't have had to quit school and go to work. I think maybe I'd have a lot more going for me today."
Chris still remembers sitting in the Benton County courthouse watching lawyers and judges talk about his dad being a big-time dope dealer.
"I knew then, even though I was just a kid, that my dad was getting a bad deal," Chris, now 33, says. "They were trying to make him out to be somebody he was not."
Now, with marijuana slowly being legalized around the country and a recent Gallup poll finding that 58 percent of Americans favor full legalization, Chris doesn't understand why his father is still locked up.
Chris never intended on being a cannabis activist, but in 2011 a friend of his shared something on Facebook that offered a gleam of hope for his father to get out of prison. The advocacy group Show-Me Cannabis was organizing a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in Missouri and release nonviolent offenders.
"I've never been a political person. I just kinda keep to myself," he explains. "But I saw that, and I had no choice but to get involved."
Chris spread the word to friends and helped gather signatures. The petition drive failed to garner enough support to get on the 2012 ballot, but in the process of organizing for the effort, the story Chris shared about his father reached Tony Nenninger, a Bourbon-based attorney and part-time marijuana-reform activist. Nenninger reviewed Mizanskey's case and was shocked by what he saw.
"What they're doing to Jeff is cruel and unusual punishment," says Nenninger. "That's really the only way to explain it."
Unfortunately, Mizanskey has exhausted all his legal appeals. The only possibility of getting him out of prison would be convincing the governor to grant him clemency.
Nenninger began coordinating the clemency effort on a shoestring. In addition to visiting Mizanskey and filing paperwork on his behalf, he wrote blog posts for pro-marijuana websites to get the word out and got in touch with Show-Me Cannabis to encourage more people to write letters and donate funds to back the effort.
"His story is creating far more interest in and support for policies such as record expungement and even the release of nonviolent cannabis offenders," says John Payne, executive director of Show-Me Cannabis, which last month hosted a town-hall meeting in Sedalia to bring attention to Mizanskey's story. "Our prisons are overcrowded, and it's just common sense that a nonviolent guy like Jeff should be released long before we ever consider paroling a violent offender."
In the Jefferson City Correctional Center, Mizanskey doesn't have a whole lot of contact with the outside world. He can't read the blog posts or get the mass e-mails about his case. But he's aware people are trying to persuade the governor to let him out, and it has given him a little bit of optimism — something he hasn't had much of since discovering several years into his sentence that he was condemned to die in prison.
Concludes Nenninger in his letter to Nixon:
"We respectfully say to you, Mr. Governor, without hesitation or equivocation, that no conceivable good for our state can come from causing this nonviolent cannabis-only convict to die in prison and pray that you commute the sentence of this prisoner without undue delay."
That letter went out last month. Mizanskey has yet to hear back from the governor.
"If he gives me a chance, he won't be disappointed," says Missouri Inmate No. 521900. "I'll be one of his success stories."