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Governor commutes life sentence of man convicted of marijuana-related offenses

Show-Me Cannabis seeks to legalize marijuana and regulate its medical use.
peter.a photography | Flickr
Show-Me Cannabis seeks to legalize marijuana and regulate its medical use.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon is pardoning five people for non-violent offenses, some of them committed decades ago.  One of those pardoned was convicted for stealing $1.46.

But most of the attention that Nixon is receiving for Friday's announcement is focused on his decision to commute the life sentence of Jeffrey Mizanskey, who has become a major figure in the movement to decriminalize marijuana.

Now in his early 60s, Mizanskey has become a cause celebre within the movement to decriminalize marijuana.

A native of Sedalia, Mo., Mizanskey was sentenced almost 20 years ago to life in prison because of his role in a friend’s sale of marijuana to undercover police.

Mizanskey received such a hefty sentence because he already had several previous marijuana-related convictions.

Groups seeking to decriminalize marijuana have used Mizanskey as a prime example of miscarried justice.  They emphasize that all of his convictions were for non-violent offenses.

Nixon has been under pressure for months from Mizanskey’s allies and relatives to take action.  But earlier this winter, the governor said he would not pardon Mizanskey.

Friday’s announcement that the governor is commuting Mizanskey’s sentence instead means that he  could qualify for parole, if the parole board so chooses. “My action provides Jeff Mizanskey with the opportunity to demonstrate that he deserves parole,” the governor said.

Nixon’s decision also comes as initiative-petition drives may get underway shortly to ask Missouri voters in 2016 to decriminalize marijuana. The Missouri secretary of state’s office is reviewing the wording on several proposed petitions, although none have yet to be cleared for circulation.

Nixon’s pardons also include one drug offender

The governor did pardon five other  people who previously had been convicted of non-violent offenses, and had served their sentences or paid their fines. Nixon emphasized in a statement that all five have become law-abiding citizens.

“The executive power to grant clemency is one I take with a great deal of consideration and seriousness,” Nixon said in a statement. “In each of the cases where I have granted a pardon, the individual has demonstrated the ability and willingness to turn his or her life around and become a contributing member of society.

The five include  Michael Derrington, who was convicted in 1979 of misdemeanor marijuana possession in St. Louis County and paid a $100 fine. Derrington has been a substance-abuse counselor for almost 30 years. In 2008, he was honored for his work by the National Council of Alcohol and Drug Abuse.

According to the governor’s office, the others pardoned are:

  •  Nicole Lowe, who now lives in Tennessee and has been employed as a loan officer with various banking and mortgage companies. “In 2000, she was given a suspended execution of sentence in St. Francois County after being convicted of misdemeanor stealing for taking two deposits from her employer,” the governor said. “Lowe returned the amount she stole and successfully completed a two-year term of probation.”
  •  Bill Holt, who has worked as a school bus driver for nearly three decades. In 1958, Holt was convicted in Douglas County for failing to make child support payments. He spent less than two weeks in the county jail before being placed on probation.
  •  Doris Atchison, who has completed a vocational heating and air condition program. In 1970, she was convicted in Cape Girardeau County of misdemeanor stealing of items valued at $1.46 from a local store. She paid a $45 fine.
  • Earl Wolf, who has worked as a carpenter and as a truck driver. “In 1961, he and two others broke into a grocery store in Mercer County and stole several items,” the governor’s office said. Wolf was convicted on misdemeanor burglary and larceny charges and received a three-year term of probation, which he successfully completed.
Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.