How an Unlikely Coalition of Family, Marijuana Activists, Redditors and a GOP State Rep Freed Jeff Mizanskey from Life in Prison

Jeff Mizanskey was freed September 1.
Jeff Mizanskey was freed September 1. Ray Downs

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click to enlarge Mizanskey with his great-granddaughter, Aria McReaken. - RAY DOWNS
Ray Downs
Mizanskey with his great-granddaughter, Aria McReaken.

State representative Shamed Dogan of west St. Louis County, first heard about Mizanskey's plight like most everyone else: online. Like many, he had trouble believing Mizanskey was in solely for marijuana convictions.

But when Dogan confirmed that the stories were true, he had options that other sympathetic readers did not.

His first course of action was to see if he and other lawmakers could get Nixon to grant clemency. When they, too, were ignored, the Republican decided to legislate.

In February 2015, Dogan announced HB 978, which called for the release of any Missouri inmate serving life without parole for nonviolent, marijuana-only charges.

In other words, Jeff Mizanskey.

"It is unconscionable to me that this man, who is no danger to society, will spend the rest of his life in prison at taxpayer expense," Dogan said in a press release announcing the bill. "Many of my legislative colleagues have come together to implore the governor to commute Mr. Mizanskey's life sentence, but to date the governor has done nothing more than promise to review Jeff's case before he leaves office. I appreciate the governor's willingness to eventually take interest in this case, but the time for justice is now. My legislation would allow immediate action to be taken so that this miscarriage of justice can be rectified and Jeff Mizanskey can again be a free man."

Calling out Nixon in the press release was intentional. The bill's true purpose, Dogan admits, was to push the governor to grant clemency.

On April 28, Dogan, members of Show-Me Cannabis, and Chris Mizanskey held a joint press conference at the Missouri statehouse to announce that they were about to deliver 390,000 signatures from a petition that asked Nixon to give clemency to Mizanskey. Started by Chris in early 2014, the petition got a great deal of attention, including mentions in the BBC and a tweet from Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey.

During the press conference, a reporter asked Dogan about his pending bill.

"You don't hear legislators say this very often, but I really don't want my bill to pass," he said, only half-joking. "It would be wonderful if the governor took this bill out of consideration and grant clemency tomorrow."

Over the next few weeks, Dogan's bill gained wide acceptance in the Missouri House, most notably from Representative Paul Fitzwater, a powerful conservative Republican from Farmington who chairs the House Corrections Committee. He personally traveled to the JCCC to meet Mizanskey.

"I was blown away when I met Mr. Mizanskey," Fitzwater explains. "Here was a man who had done everything he could to rehabilitate himself, he had been working the entire time, and he didn't deny he did wrong. But most of all, I was amazed that in 22 years of being in prison, he had only been written up twice: Once for a dirty cell, and once for putting a letter in the wrong mail slot. I've been involved in corrections for a long time and that's remarkable. The man was a model prisoner and had clearly been rehabilitated."

Fitzwater quickly scheduled a committee hearing.

The hearing took place inside a gray-walled room in the state capitol with Mizanskey supporters and family members facing the twelve-member committee. In between sat Dogan, who made his case for Mizanskey's release. After citing Nixon's refusal to act, Dogan explained: "I wrote this bill to save taxpayers money and to right an injustice that was done to Mr. Mizanskey."

Fitzwater then implored committee members to look at the bigger picture.

"The prison population has increased to over 33,000 in the state of Missouri," Fitzwater said during the hearing. "The question is: Do we build a new prison, or do we find ways to put some of these nonviolent criminals that are behind bars with long sentences back on the street and make them citizens again? This is a serious question that we have to address."

There wasn't much argument. Several committee members voiced support, including Republican representative Justin Hill, a former undercover narcotics officer with the St. Charles County Drug Task Force.

"As somebody that has pretty extensive experience in narcotics investigations from working with the DEA and drug task forces, this marijuana charge does not fit the sentencing," Hill said. "I've charged people in federal court with a thousand pounds of marijuana and they got quite a lesser sentence than this. This is very excessive."

Representative Penny Hubbard, a Democrat from St. Louis, added: "I've been in corrections at the state and local level for 30 years, and I've never seen a sentence like this. I'll be supporting the bill."

And then Mike Mizanskey, Jeff's 57-year-old brother, nervously read a moving statement to the committee about the impact Mizanskey's incarceration has had on the family.

"The saddest and most heart-wrenching thing I had to do was travel from Chicago to the Jefferson City Correctional Center to be with my mother, who was dying of cancer, so she and Jeff could say their final good-byes. That broke Jeff's heart," Mike said, wiping a tear from behind his eyeglasses. "I am now fulfilling my mother's last words before she passed. She made me promise to be committed to getting justice for Jeff. That's why I'm here today."

The bill passed committee 11 to 1, and looked like it would pass in the full chamber — it had bipartisan support and even greater support from the public. Maybe Nixon wasn't necessary after all.

Yet resistance seemed to be building, for reasons that aren't entirely clear. Payne, of Show-Me Cannabis, says that several lawmakers were concerned with the bill's constitutionality. Another source who has worked extensively in the Missouri House says that some Republicans didn't want to vote yes on the bill, but they also didn't want to look bad by voting against it. They apparently told the speaker not to allow a vote.

When HB 978 did not make it to a vote before the session ended May 14, Mizanskey's best chance for freedom was over, just like that.

"I was crushed. I thought that was it," recalls Mizanskey.

Show-Me Cannabis urged supporters not to give up. There's always the next legislative session, and this time they knew they had support from many lawmakers. Maybe a few more could be convinced.

But finally, on May 22, Nixon did something. It wasn't clemency, but it was the next best thing: The governor commuted the 62-year-old's sentence, making it possible for Mizanskey to be paroled.

"The executive power to grant clemency is one I take with a great deal of consideration and seriousness," Nixon said in a press release. "In the case of the commutation, my action provides Jeff Mizanskey with the opportunity to demonstrate that he deserves parole."

After almost 22 years in prison, Mizanskey would finally have the possibility of parole.

And while getting parole was certainly preferable to staying in prison, it also meant that Mizanskey would not be completely free: He'd have to report to a parole officer on a regular basis, see his travel restricted, and have to piss in a cup under the watchful eye of the state of Missouri.

"Nixon should have just granted Jeff clemency, but as usual, he's unwilling to take action," Dogan says. "I was very disappointed, but I can't say I was surprised."

Payne felt the same way.

"It was a very Nixon thing to do," said Payne. "He just kicked the decision over to the parole board so he wouldn't have to make a decision. That's right out of the Nixon playbook."

Few doubted that Mizanskey would be granted parole. Show-Me Cannabis kept pushing, rallying its supporters to write letters to the parole board during the lead-up to the August 6 hearing.

That morning, Mizanskey made his case one last time. The parole board told him it could be six to eight weeks before they'd rule.

But less than two weeks later, on August 20, they gave him a decision.

On September 1, 2015, roughly three months shy of his 22nd year in prison, Jeff Mizanskey would be released.

"I just can't believe it," Chris Mizanskey tells the RFT. "It's surreal. Finally. They're finally gonna let him out."

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