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Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Gov. Parson Commutes Sentence of Robert Franklin, Cannabis Prisoner Featured in the RFT

Posted By on Wed, May 5, 2021 at 1:12 PM

click to enlarge "I'm just keeping hope alive," Robert Franklin told RFT last month in an interview from prison. - CANNA CONVICT PROJECT
  • CANNA CONVICT PROJECT
  • "I'm just keeping hope alive," Robert Franklin told RFT last month in an interview from prison.

Robert Franklin, who has served more than a decade of a 22-year prison sentence for a marijuana crime, has become the ninth drug offender since 2020 to have his case commuted by Gov. Mike Parson.

"It was the best news I've had in years," Franklin said Tuesday in an interview from the Moberly Correctional Center. "I was ecstatic. I was so excited I almost had an anxiety attack."



The governor's action means that Franklin will have the opportunity to face a parole board, which will then determine whether the 41-year-old is fit to serve the rest of his sentence outside prison walls on supervised release.

In 2007, Franklin was arrested in Saline County after he tossed a one-pound brick of marijuana from the window of his SUV while fleeing state troopers. At Franklin's trial, a jury found him guilty of possession with intent to distribute, and a judge sentences him to more than two decades in prison — but it was a particular Missouri law that had actually mandated a ten-year minimum sentence without the possibility of parole.

That law, which allowed prosecutors to designate defendants as "prior and persistent drug offenders," has been the subject of multiple investigations by the RFT. In a 2016 cover story, Franklin's case was featured as an example of how Missouri's uniquely harsh drug laws trap people in sentences that are often many times the length of the prison terms served by those convicted of violent crimes.

Last week, the RFT published an update on Franklin's case — though little had changed in the intervening six years. At the time, Franklin said he was struggling "to keep hope alive" for his fourteen-year-old daughter, who had grown up knowing her father only through phone calls and prison visits.

Two days after the story ran, Franklin says he was called away from his job in the prison laundry for a meeting with a parole officer — something that had never happened before, as his "prior and persistent" label made him ineligible to even be considered for early release.

Over the years, Franklin says, he submitted multiple applications for clemency to the governor's office, but, like other drug offenders in his position, he says that he never received any hint that his case had gone anywhere, let alone that he was under consideration for clemency.

All that changed on April 30.

"They told me that the governor commuted my sentence and that I had a meeting with the parole board June 3," Franklin says, summarizing the meeting with the parole officer that day.

After the meeting, Franklin says, he went back to work in the prison laundry, "but I couldn't concentrate on nothing but getting out."

He laughs, adding, "I haven't been able to concentrate on anything but that news, to be honest. I've been staying up all night, praying that they go ahead and release me and that nothing goes wrong."

In prior clemencies, the governor’s office has declined to offer details on the selection process, and so it’s not clear when, or why, Franklin’s case landed on the top of the governor’s backlog of more than 3,000 clemency applications. In multiple interviews before the governor's announcement, Franklin and his supporters at the nonprofit Canna Convict Project told the RFT that they could only guess at the status of his clemency application.

All that is different now: Pending a parole hearing, Franklin could soon be leaving prison, making him one of just ten "prior and persistent drug offenders" to do so  — and the first case of Parson's clemencies related to marijuana crimes.

Before Franklin, the last time a Missouri governor freed a cannabis-related drug offender was 2015, when Gov. Jay Nixon freed Jeff Mizanskey from a life sentence for weed. Mizanskey's punishment would have been, effectively, a death sentence, and it had sparked statewide outrage from attorneys, legalization activists and even GOP legislators.

Parson has drawn praise from criminal justice reformers for addressing the clemency backlog. It's notable that nine of the ten commutations issued under Parson's administration have dealt with offenders trapped by the state's "prior and persistent" drug law. Although lawmakers voted to repeal the law in 2017 — replacing it with a system that allows repeat drug offenders to qualify for parole after serving a percentage of their sentence — the amended criminal code did not function retroactively.

That left more than 200 drug offenders unaffected by the repeal, including Franklin, who still had nearly a decade left on his original sentence before Parson intervened.

Citing the prison parole officials, Franklin says that he's been told that his earliest possible release date is in July. He plans on moving to Columbia, near his daughter, and starting his own window-washing business.

"I'm really looking forward to July," he says. "The governor has made me a happy man." 

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at
@D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com
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