(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.

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