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.

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