On June 14, 1994, William Jefferson Clinton was President of the United States … Monica Lewinsky was applying to the White House to be an intern … the iPhone was 13 years from being launched … and Michelle West was standing in a Michigan federal court about to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Stewart Newblatt (Eastern District of Michigan). Judge Newblatt’s decision was something that he struggled with, not because he did not believe that West needed to be punished, but that the punishment would be unbearable for them both.
“The Federal Sentencing Guidelines require that I impose a sentence of two life sentences plus 50 years,” Newblatt said. That was twenty-six years ago, Judge Newblatt, at 92 years old, is still alive but on senior status, but West (Inmate #17809-039) is in FCI Dublin, a low security federal prison in California. Now West, 59 years old, is hoping that President Donald Trump will say that nearly three decades in prison is long enough.
Amy Povah who started the CAN-DO Foundation (Clemency for All Non-violent Drug Offenders) and is one of the country’s leading advocates for presidential clemency told me in an interview that West’s case is one that has fallen between national agendas.
President Ronald Reagan signed the Sentencing Reform act creating the US Sentencing Commission and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines which assigned points to criminal acts then applied those against a grid yielding a sentence. A federal judge’s role became one of administration rather than judgements. In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that the guidelines were not mandatory, but a guide. That was too late for West.
She was charged and convicted as part of a drug conspiracy case that held her responsible for the actions of her co-conspirator, including an habitual career offender who admitted to committing a murder after he was arrested on other charges. It was an easy decision for the murderer to “cooperate” and provide “substantial assistance” Substantial assistance is defined as assistance “directed to the investigation and prosecution of criminal activities by persons other than the defendant.”
Povah told me that for someone who has a violent crime, it is not uncommon that they point the finger at others, “When habitual career offenders and murders are given full immunity to testify against others people with no criminal record like Michelle West can find themselves tossed in an indictment based on very thin evidence in the form of innuendos.”
No one was charged in the murder, but the man who confessed to the murder testified against West and other co-defendants. . He never served a day in prison and it was West’s first offense. Though West was not part of the violence, she was held accountable for the murder as if she had pulled the trigger herself.
“There in lies the problem, “said Amy Povah, who believes the conspiracy law is the best kept secret in the nation. “It’s guilt by association.”
West’s decision to go to trial was her own. Believing that she would not only get a fair trail but they she would also be exonerated. She knows now that she may have done things differently. A plea would have put her in prison for 20 years and put her at odds with a drug ring that would have likely killed her or, worse, her 10- year old daughter. At the time, the 33 year old West believed a trial to be a way out of trouble and the 20 years in prison for a plea seemed like a life time. Those 20 years have come and gone.
After the sentencing, in a letter to West, Judge Newblatt wrote: “Once convicted, your sentences were required by the Sentencing Guidelines and I was not permitted to exercise my judgment.”
I spoke to Povah about West’s case who told me, “On paper, President Barack Obama’s Clemency Project 2014 looked great, but then there was a problem, he let prosecutors have a say in the process.” According to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, the views of the US Attorney and the Assistant Attorney General are given considerable weight in determining what recommendations to the President, a change brought about by the Obama administration. As if prosecutors do not already have enough power, they are now allowed to weigh-in on whether or not a presidential clemency is granted. “Obama is credited with 1,715 clemencies,” Povah said, “and that was just scratching the surface of the problem.”
Trump has taken a non-traditional approach to about every part of his presidency, choosing to take actions that are influenced by his own political views and, at times, those of celebrities who have his ear. On clemency, Trump has acted on requests backed by Kim Kardashian West (no relation to Michelle West) but has yet to take broad action. Povah told me, “President Trump gets props for granting more clemencies than President Obama granted in his first term. Most presidents in my adult lifetime have waited until the end of their second term to administer mercy and the recent COVID-19 crisis has our entire nation in a holding pattern. However, Jared Kushner has put considerable time into the pardon and clemency process. I’m cautiously optimistic that things will start moving again for people like Michelle [West].”
West is the first to admit that she made poor decisions and was hanging with the wrong crowd. In some ways, prison may have saved her but that realization came and went two decades ago. She has become a mentor to other women in prison and has seen her share of them come and go over the years. Her daughter, Miquelle who is now 37 years old, wants to see her mother freed and wrote her own letter to Trump, “We both deserve a second chance because my life will never be complete until my mother is free – we are both serving a life sentence, every single day.”
West’s chance at clemency seemed high when Obama invited West’s daughter to the White House for a clemency summit. However, soon after, the Obama administration started rejecting many clemencies, including West’s and that of Alice Marie Johnson. Johnson was granted clemency by Trump in 2018, perhaps he will see the same injustice in West’s case.
“We really thought that Obama’s initiative was Michelle’s ticket to freedom, especially since he focused primarily on people of color serving life sentences,” Povah said, “now we hope President Trump will reunite Michelle with her daughter who is the innocent victim in this horrible story.”
You’ll find West’s letter of support to Trump here … you can add my name to the list.