Tim Prosser Isn't a Killer or a Dealer. So Why Is He Serving a Life Sentence— With No Chance of Parole?

Tim Prosser is doing a no parole life sentence for drug trafficking — the one such inmate in all of Missouri.
Tim Prosser is doing a no parole life sentence for drug trafficking — the one such inmate in all of Missouri. PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI

It was early afternoon, December 12, 2003, when Patrick Prosser heard the phone ringing inside the lakefront home he shared with his wife in a Ste. Genevieve subdivision. The voice on the other end was gruff, no-nonsense and familiar. It belonged to the county sheriff:

"Mr. Prosser, do you want to see what your son has been up to?"

A patriarch in the Old Testament sense, Prosser and his wife had raised a tribe of nine children in the St. Louis suburb of Normandy before moving an hour south to this rural enclave. A few of their grown kids settled there as well, and among them was Tim — or "Timbo" as the family called him. The middle child, Tim had never married and lived alone in a single-wide trailer on a remote patch of land in Ste. Genevieve County. He drew disability benefits for injuries he'd suffered working for the family's moving business. He spent his time hunting and salvaging muscle cars.

Or so Prosser had thought.

The temperature hovered below freezing, and Prosser, who was pushing 70, bundled up and made the twenty-minute drive to Tim's trailer. Up a narrow, dirt-packed road shrouded by trees, Prosser eventually found Ste. Genevieve County Sheriff Gary Stolzer standing amid a crime scene.

The interior of the trailer looked like it had been ransacked. Pots, pans and coffee cups littered the ground, as well as strange-looking glass flasks and lengths of tubing. They were all that remained from the meth lab police had busted in an early-morning raid on the property, the sheriff said. Tim had been arrested and would soon be charged with drug trafficking in the first degree.

That night, several members of the Prosser clan went to see Tim at the county lockup. Bound in a straightjacket, Tim raved and thrashed against his restraints. He begged them to get him out. This was a side of Tim they'd never seen, more a caged animal than a son or brother.

For the most part, the extended Prosser family had been oblivious to Tim's decline into addiction and meth-cooking. But Tim was known to the local drug task force members. In November 2002, officers had even searched Tim's trailer and discovered a meth lab and a trove of drugs. It was more than enough, Stolzer confidently told a local newspaper, to put Tim away for life.

But Tim had been a first-time drug offender with no prior felonies. After the November 2002 arrest, Carl Kinsky, the local prosecutor, merely slapped him with felony charges for possession and unlawful use of paraphernalia.

Thirteen months later, before the first case could be adjudicated, the drug task force raided Tim's trailer a second time. That morning of December 12, as the wind whipped with freezing rain, they confiscated 350 grams of methamphetamine, mostly in liquid form. The officers also pulled a seventeen-year-old girl out of Tim's bed.

"There's no saying what you feel. It was awful," Patrick Prosser says on a recent evening, recounting the events of more than a decade past. Now 80, the elder Prosser sports a shock of white beard and can speak only in a whisper. Tim, now 53, has spent the last thirteen years behind bars.

"He was the poster boy for meth, that's what they made him," Patrick says, speaking with a forcefulness that cracks his voice to a rasp. "We want him out."

Without outside intervention, Tim Prosser will die in prison.

Just as Sheriff Stolzer suggested, Tim was eventually given a life sentence for trafficking methamphetamine in the first degree. Due to the quantity of drugs involved — more than three times the 90-gram minimum for first-degree drug trafficking — he was deemed ineligible for probation or parole.

Tim's descent into meth had followed a familiar path, starting with a spate of injuries that led him to painkillers and then, inexorably, to a substance that provided what the pills could not. He admits that he ran a kind of meth-cooking co-op out of his trailer and attributes his actions to his ravenous drug use. He is sober now. He says he's filled with regret.

Although he has no violent crimes on his record, Tim's 2003 arrest triggered a fate that amounts to a prolonged execution. He is serving a no-parole life sentence for drug trafficking — the only such prisoner in the state, according to a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Corrections.

On August 19, with the assistance of the Saint Louis University Legal Clinic, Tim mailed an application for clemency to Governor Jay Nixon, a former state attorney general who campaigned on his record for sustaining law and order. Nixon has allowed thousands of such petitions to gather dust on his desk.

But Tim has something those other petitioners would give anything to have: a powerful advocate on the other side of the law.

click to enlarge A photo of Tim Prosser in his early 20s. Now 53, Tim will die in prison — unless the governor steps in. - COURTESY OF THE PROSSER FAMILY
A photo of Tim Prosser in his early 20s. Now 53, Tim will die in prison — unless the governor steps in.

Ste. Genevieve County ProsecutingAttorney Carl Kinsky had little trouble convincing two separate juries of Tim's guilt. The first trial, held in March 2004, ended with a guilty verdict on felony charges of drug possession and unlawful use of paraphernalia. That jury gave Tim the toughest possible sentence, eleven years.

The trial for Tim's second set of charges, held eight months later, played out like an encore performance. In hindsight, Tim should never have taken his second case to trial. Kinsky presented essentially the same arguments he'd used to persuade the previous jury, parading lab evidence and photos of Tim's meth lab and calling on drug task force members to describe the extent of the backwoods Walter White's operation.

In both raids, confidential informants had been sent to Tim's trailer with a box of pseudoephedrine pills, the key ingredient required to transform otherwise legal items (camp fuel, acetone, matchbooks, antifreeze) into homemade meth. The informants' sworn statements were entered into evidence, describing how Tim accepted the pills in exchange for a future batch of the finished product.

There was also a mountain of lab-tested evidence pulled from the trailer, including numerous dishes and jars that tested positive for meth and pseudoephedrine. During the first raid, police discovered a baggie of white powder (testing positive for meth) and an actual pipe with meth residue.

Tim did little to aid his own defense. He was more like his own worst enemy.

His worst blunder came two weeks after the December 2003 arrest. Tim foolishly placed a phone call from the county jail to the seventeen-year-old girl who had been present during the raid.

In the phone call, Tim boasted that he'd known the bust was coming, but hadn't had the opportunity to "get to my guns" before the police swooped in. He advised the teen not to plead guilty because "they can't charge you for what was in my house."

Throughout the call, Tim begged her to write him letters. He called her "baby" and told her that he still loved her. He promised that he would send her money to buy "a bag of happiness."

Like all communications going in and out of the county jail, the phone call was recorded. Kinsky played the recording for the jury.

"We're not talking about a defendant who cooks the methamphetamine, and that's it," Kinsky said during his closing argument. The two rifles, two pistols and shotgun police recovered from Tim's trailer were legally owned, but Kinsky pointed to the recorded phone call as proof Tim wasn't an otherwise peaceable fellow who just happened to be cooking meth.

In a recorded jailhouse interview the day after the raid, the seventeen-year-old girl (who was ultimately not charged with any crime and released) insisted that she and Tim had never been "boyfriend and girlfriend." Still, Kinsky impressed upon the jury that Tim had, at the very least, chosen to corrupt a person who wasn't even old enough to buy cigarettes.

"You're going to send a message, whatever your verdict is. I hope that message is: Not in our county," Kinsky told the jury. "I don't think the facts in this case tilt toward the side of leniency."

It took the jury less than twenty minutes to reach a guilty verdict. Given the option of ten to thirty years, or life in prison, the jury chose life.

click to enlarge During Tim's 2004 trial for meth trafficking, prosecutor Carl Kinsky convinced a jury that a harsh sentence would send a powerful message to other meth cooks in Ste. Genevieve County. Kinsky sees things differently now. - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
During Tim's 2004 trial for meth trafficking, prosecutor Carl Kinsky convinced a jury that a harsh sentence would send a powerful message to other meth cooks in Ste. Genevieve County. Kinsky sees things differently now.

Last year, a letter arrived at Tim's cell in the Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston.

"Dear Governor Nixon," the letter began. "I am requesting the commutation of Timothy Prosser's sentence in the above cause. I was the prosecuting attorney who prosecuted Mr. Prosser and am the current prosecuting attorney for Ste. Genevieve County."

Dated September 20, the letter's stationary bore the name of none other than Carl Kinsky. Tim was flabbergasted. He hadn't heard a word from the prosecutor since the disastrous 2004 trials, whose verdicts Tim had been fighting (unsuccessfully) in various appeals ever since.

In the letter, Kinsky revealed he'd had a change of heart.

There were nagging issues with the trial itself, wrote the prosecutor. Kinsky noted that jury members in Tim's second trial had voiced their confusion about what a "life sentence" really meant. Before reaching their verdict, the jury had gone as far as to send a written question to Judge Kenneth Wayne Pratte, asking if the option for the life sentence came with parole.

At the time, Tim's attorney argued that the jury absolutely needed to know that any sentence they chose would, by law, be served without possibility of parole.

That was owing to an unusual component of the law under which Tim was sentenced. Overall, very few people serve the entire sentence proscribed by a judge or jury. Even offenders convicted of violent crimes are afforded the opportunity to make their case before the parole board. Did you stay out of trouble, make restitution, get your GED or complete drug treatment courses? That could be the difference between freedom and ten more years in prison. As a result, Missouri currently houses around 32,000 inmates in its penitentiaries, while an additional 15,000 convicted offenders are out on parole. (Another43,000 are serving probation without having ever set foot in prison.)

But the 350 grams of meth pulled from Tim’s trailer had triggered a little-known provision in Missouri law. The provision –- which the state legislature has slated for repeal effective January 1, 2017 — stipulates that anyone convicted of trafficking more than 90 grams of meth automatically loses eligibility for parole.

click to enlarge Tim Prosser's jury handed down a sentence without being fully aware of just how long it would be. Click in for more detail. - GRAPHIC BY KELLY GLUECK
Tim Prosser's jury handed down a sentence without being fully aware of just how long it would be. Click in for more detail.

The jury wasn't told that. Tim's attorney failed to convince the judge that their questions about parole deserved an answer. According to a transcript of the exchange, Kinsky argued that Missouri law is very specific about a jury's responsibilities: They can determine guilt and punishment, that's all. The law leaves no room to include the separate matter of parole.

Judge Pratte agreed with Kinsky. He left the jury members to their confusion, writing back: "The Court is not allowed to give you any further instructions on the matter."

In the 2015 letter, Kinsky implied that Tim would have been better off being convicted of murder in the first degree. Murder carries a possible punishment of life without possibility of parole. However, the language of the murder statute actually permits a jury to be informed that a life sentence means just that — imprisonment until death.

That wasn't the case for a drug trafficking conviction like Tim's.

That murder and drug trafficking carry similar punishments but different jury instructions bothered Kinsky to the core. It was a clear inconsistency in the law, he would write in his letter to Governor Nixon, years after Tim was sent away for life.

"I argued against the judge so informing the jury, but now find it unconscionable that a defendant in a murder trial has the benefit of a jury being so instructed, but not Timothy Prosser," Kinsky wrote.

The prosecutor walked a narrow line in his statements to Nixon. Kinsky conceded no mistakes or faults in his handling of the case. Instead, he appealed to the obvious injustice wrought at the hands of the law.

"In my opinion, Mr. Prosser was clearly guilty," Kinsky's letter concluded. "His decision to proceed to trial was likely the result of poor judgment caused by his drug abuse. His conduct merited substantial punishment. Nevertheless, it did not merit this punishment and it did not merit this punishment from a jury that was not fully advised of the consequences of the sentence it assessed."

In an interview last month with Riverfront Times, Kinsky reiterated his opinion that Tim certainly deserved to go to prison for cooking meth — but not for the rest of his life.

Tim's sentence "has preyed on me for a while," Kinsky says now. "Time gives you some distance. I've had cases where I've had qualms about the punishment, but this one seems to be in a completely different class."

After nearly twenty years, Kinsky is ready to leave the prosecution business altogether. Now in his fifth term, he's decided not to run for reelection after this term runs out in 2018.

Kinsky believes Tim was tried and sentenced by the book. But the resulting sentence eats away at him.

"Life without the possibility of parole means death in prison," says the prosecutor. "It means you're leaving prison feet-first no matter what. If he lives to be 500 years old, he still dies in prison."

Kinsky isn't the only one with complicated regrets. In 2008, Tim's family managed to locate one of his jurors from the 2003 case.

The juror, Mary Elise Samson, said she had no doubt as to Tim's guilt. But she had been stunned to discover the reality of Tim's life sentence. In a notarized affidavit, she claimed that the jurors had deliberated assuming Tim was eligible for parole — the faulty assumption left uncorrected by Judge Pratte's order.

"We were concerned that Mr. Prosser would be out on parole in a short period of time; whereas with the life sentence he would be incarcerated for a longer period of time before becoming eligible for parole," Samson wrote. "If the jury had been informed about the parole issue when we requested clarification, I am confident that we would have selected the lengthy sentence instead of life imprisonment."

click to enlarge Police photos from a November 2002 raid on Tim's trailer show the detritus of a meth lab. - COURTESY OF THE PROSSER FAMILY
Police photos from a November 2002 raid on Tim's trailer show the detritus of a meth lab.

The road to the Southeastern Correctional Center passes alongside a verdant field of corn. The stalks rustle in the afternoon wind, as if stretching toward the August sun. Peeking above the leaves, the brutalist gray face of the prison's intake center greets visitors entering the sprawling compound. For Tim Prosser, it is both home and coffin.

Tim's life began falling apart long before he moved into a trailer in Ste. Genevieve. It started, he says, when he lifted a piano in 1988.

"It was just a regular household move," Tim recalls, resting his meaty forearms on a table in the prison's visitation room. "I moved furniture for 21 years, and I lifted a piano, done it a thousand times, if not more. I turned wrong. I have no idea what happened. It sent a sudden pain down my back and my legs."

Tim kept working, but the pain began to overtake his life. Doctors told him he had a couple herniated discs in his lower back. They gave him pills, starting with Vicodin and moving on to Darvocet and Percocet. The prescription drugs dulled the pain — along with everything else.

In the early '90s, several Prosser families migrated south to Ste. Genevieve. Tim followed, but he says memories of those years are blurred by the pills. He worked odd jobs to make a living, repairing cars and menial labor, whatever his broken-down body could handle. In 1997, he suffered a serious car accident, and the ensuing medical costs wiped out whatever savings he had left. He moved in with his parents.

It was around 2000 when Tim, having recovered from the car accident, was offered meth by an acquaintance in a billiards league.

At first, it felt like a miracle cure.

"It gave me function," Tim says. "There was no pain and I could move. I could get up every day."

But in just three short years, Tim's meth addiction had derailed his life. He found himself in the crosshairs of the Ste. Genevieve police and local drug task force.

Tim hadn't been a perfect citizen. Years before succumbing to meth, he pleaded guilty in 1988 to unlawful use of a firearm, and he had enough of a drinking problem that he racked up three DWI convictions over the ensuing decade. But those crimes, all misdemeanors, resulted in nothing more than probation.

In 2003, seemingly overnight, Tim became a cautionary tale, the modern-day version of the severed head placed outside castle walls. His life sentence was heralded as a warning to other drug dealers.

"The people of Ste. Genevieve County have spoken," a representative for the Ste. Genevieve sheriff told a local paper after Tim's sentencing. "If you're making, buying or selling illegal drugs in this county...it will not be tolerated."

But there are reasons to be skeptical that Tim was anything other than a small-time meth cook primarily interested in feeding his own addiction.

First, Tim didn't actually possess 350 grams of meth. Officers didn't find plastic bags bulging with powder or crystals; instead, they filled evidence jars with the liquid bubbling in various containers found around the trailer. That's what tested positive for containing methamphetamine.

However, liquid in the process of being distilled into meth isn't equivalent to the stuff you sell on the street.

"That's another bizarre aspect of the statute," says Kinsky. "Ninety grams of pure meth is worth a lot. Ninety grams of a liquid that contains meth is, I don't know what it could produce typically, but it's not the final product. It's not going to produce anywhere near 90 grams of pure meth."

In fact, Tim claims the 350 grams of liquid would have yielded just three to five grams of usable meth — and even that small amount would have been divided between other users who contributed ingredients.

And if Tim really was running a "large-scale" operation, where was the money? Officers found a wad of $3,000 cash in Tim's pocket, but court records show that Kinsky ultimately ordered the money returned after Tim's family proved the cash had come from a social security settlement check. Even the informants working for law enforcement, too, had offered him ingredients, not cash.

The totality of the evidence backs Tim's contention that he was an addict, not a kingpin. His history of chronic pain preceding prescription drug abuse follows a similar trajectory to the tens of thousands of Americans trapped in the opioid epidemic sweeping the country. Although the epidemic has gained media coverage more recently over its link to heroin overdoses, differences in regional drug markets mean that rural towns like Ste. Genevieve have been flush with a different painkilling alternative.

At the time of Tim's sentence, meth was decimating rural communities. Law enforcement was eager to show they were taking it seriously. But that meant, in many cases, toughening up drug laws to lock up addicts after the fact.

Tim is still in pain, a sensation he compares to being endlessly whacked about the limbs by former Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire. These days, prison doctors have put him on a nerve-dampening medication called Neurontin. It still doesn't do much.

As years passed, Tim settled into prison life. He kept himself out of trouble, receiving just three conduct violations since 2004. He lives in the honor dorm of the Southeast Correctional Center.

Six years ago, Tim joined a program that allows inmates to train shelter dogs deemed unwanted and unadoptable. The program is called Puppies for Parole. So far, Tim has taught some 30 dogs basic obedience skills and socialization. Eventually, the dogs are sent home to new adoptive families.

Tim stays.

click to enlarge In Ste. Genevieve, Patrick Prosser, 80, holds a photo showing his son Tim as he looked before meth derailed his life. - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
In Ste. Genevieve, Patrick Prosser, 80, holds a photo showing his son Tim as he looked before meth derailed his life.

When Kinsky's letter showed up in Tim's cell last year, the middle-aged inmate had all but given up hope. The prosecutor's missive, he says, "was like a light coming on at the end of the tunnel."

But that tunnel has a gatekeeper: Governor Jay Nixon. And commuting Tim's sentence — thus making him eligible for parole — doesn't seem high on Nixon's to-do list.

Until recently, Nixon largely ignored the pleas of the thousands of offenders serving lengthy prison terms in Missouri. Many of those sentences stem from the harsh drug laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s.

"These policies are coming back to haunt us," says John Ammann, a supervisor in Saint Louis University's civil litigation clinic and the lead author behind Tim's petition for clemency. "People are starting to realize that this tough on crime attitude is not a good situation. We locked non-violent people up, like Tim, for the rest of their lives. We're spending a lot of money to incarcerate people who could be productive citizens."

In his seven-plus years as governor, Nixon has commuted the sentences of only a handful of Missourians, almost all who were convicted of the pettiest of crimes and who already served their full sentences. He commuted the sentence of just one person who was incarcerated at the time — a man named Jeff Mizanskey.

A Sedalia pot dealer, Mizanskey had been serving a life sentence for transporting several pounds of marijuana in 1993. Because of Missouri's unique three-strike law for drug offenders, Mizanskey — who had two previous felony pot busts on his record — was automatically denied eligibility for parole.

Riverfront Times reported on Mizanskey's sentence in 2013, and he quickly became the focal point of a burgeoning political movement of cannabis activists and prison reformers. In August 2015, Nixon commuted the 62-year-old grandfather's sentence. One month later, after an appearance before the parole board, Mizanskey walked free.

But although a change.org petition has gathered 90,000 signatures supporting Tim's release, he is no Jeff Mizanskey. Mizanskey was messing around with marijuana, which a handful of states have since legalized. And though popular opinion is shifting on the drug war, Tim is a former meth cook. People feel differently about meth — one reason the laws that gave Tim a life sentence were passed in the first place.

"The public's perception of people who use meth and produce meth is very dark," concedes Amman. "They don't consider the social, economic and medical factors that lead people to drugs. Tim was caught up in that. He had an accident, back pain, prescription pills. For some people it leads to heroin, and for him it led to meth."

But arguments about drug addiction and chronic pain might not sway Nixon — and they certainly haven't changed the opinion of the woman who was pulled from Tim's trailer as a teenager in 2003. Now 30, the woman spoke to RFT on condition of anonymity.

She says she met Tim several weeks before the 2003 arrest, through mutual friends who had first given her meth at a party. She would spend the night in the cluttered and smoky trailer, with Tim supplying meth and alcohol. The trailer had no running water and no bathroom.

Tim was prone to fits of rage. "He was always threatening to kill everybody," she says between bouts of sobbing. "If I didn't do something or made him mad, there was threats toward me." The memory of Tim's anger, not to mention the trauma of waking up to police raiding the trailer, has never left her. When she learned that Tim was seeking a commutation, she says the years-old terror came rushing back.

There are things she won't talk about, not to even to her doctors or therapists. She remembers rebuffing Tim's sexual advances, but admits that there are swaths of time she can't account for. She says she spent much of her time in the trailer passed out on a bed in a back room.

"He can play it to a tee that he has been rehabilitated, but I would put a million dollars I don't have that he isn't going to change," she says. "If that guy ever gets out, I will feel so unsafe and terrified. I don't know how I'll manage day by day. I feel like he'd be a danger, and not just to me but to any young girl."

Confronted with the woman's portrayal, Tim begs ignorance. He regrets "the entire thing, everything that ever happened," he says. But he can't remember himself as the raging and temperamental man in the woman's memories. "I am not the same person I was at the time. I know that. If I get out, I need to start a new life."

That people can change — it's an argument repeated by prison reformers since time immemorial. For those like Kinsky and Ammann, condemning a human being to die in prison is a punishment of last resort, reserved only for the most dangerous and unredeemable. Tim Prosser, they say, is not that.

As it stands, Tim has exhausted his appeals and has no other legal recourse. No one knows if Nixon will be swayed by Tim's assurances or Kinsky's regrets, but there are signs of a broader shift in how clemency is applied in the U.S. In August alone, Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 325 federal inmates, including 102 with life sentences for drug crimes. It was the greatest number of commutations ever enacted in a single month by a U.S. president.

"What we do in clemency, we don't look at things as an excuse," says Ammann. Indeed, even in a system honed over decades as an instrument of punishment, Governor Nixon is afforded the power to chart a path of human compassion.

Nixon has so far refused to act with such mercy. But Tim has hope. He still believes that people — even a governor, even a meth cook, even a prosecutor — can change.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story misstated the number of Missouri offenders currently serving probation and parole. About 15,000 convicted offenders are out on parole, not 20,000 as stated in the story. Roughly 43,000 are serving probation, not 50,000. We regret the error.

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected] 
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