March 17, 2010

Inflexible guidelines meant a long sentence for Lance Persson, who sold drugs that may have killed a man. Now he wants to be freed.Punished enough?

DAVID HENCH

— By

20080104_Lance
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20080104_Lance

Gordon Chibroski

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Staff Writer

Using and selling drugs sent Lance Persson to federal prison when he was 23 years old. Rigid federal sentencing laws have kept him there for most of his adult life.

Now 38, Persson and people who care about him are asking President Bush to let him come home.

''Twenty years is just past ridiculous,'' said Ruth Persson, his mother. ''He is ready to get out. He's proved himself.''

Even the president's aunt has petitioned unsuccessfully on behalf of Persson, who now practices Buddhism, is completing his second college degree since being convicted and has taken the course work to become a licensed substance-abuse counselor.

Persson's clemency petition is just one of thousands submitted to Bush, who has approved very few, far fewer than his predecessors.

Advocates for sentencing reform say Persson's case exposes the shortcomings of aggressive and inflexible laws adopted during the early years of the war on drugs. And, they argue, the backlog of clemency petitions deprives the system of an important release valve needed to offset inequities caused by those sentencing guidelines.

Persson's crime was selling cocaine and heroin to a friend and fellow drug user. Michael Corey, 27, died in an Old Orchard Beach motel room after combining those drugs with Valium, marijuana and alcohol. Persson faced 20 years to life for dealing drugs that resulted in a death.

Persson was stunned by Corey's death at the time, but he says now that drugs and alcohol surely would have killed him, too, had he not been sent to Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, one of the toughest prisons in the country. Now he wants to help others get clean and sober, but he still has three years of his sentence to serve.

Persson's case has generated prayers, letters of support and lobbying from members of the Church of the Cape, the Cape Porpoise congregation where his mother attends and where the Rev. Ruth Merriam began a prison ministry on behalf of Persson. Margaret Love, a lawyer who once reviewed clemency applications for the White House and is now in private practice, has taken his case for free.

But there are those who believe Persson is right where he belongs and that his sentence should not be shortened. One of them is Angelina Corey, Michael Corey's mother.

She does not know the soft-spoken, thoughtful Lance Persson who is committed to a new life. She knows only the man who sold drugs to her son, drugs that helped kill him.

''I think it's wonderful he's trying to improve himself and hopefully after 20 years, he will be a much better human being,'' she said.

Persson, who with good time credits would be free in 2010 after about 17 years in prison, says a presidential order letting him leave early would be welcome though he is not optimistic. Instead, he is focusing on improving himself as he has been for more than a decade, intent on understanding why he behaved the way he did and how to live better.

Getting out early would enable him to work with others on their substance abuse problems and to try to make up for having been absent from the lives of his two children, 16 and 14. His daughter lives out of state with her mother. His son is enrolled in a substance abuse program in Maine.

As a young man Persson swore he would be an emotionally supportive father, that he would not make his children feel inadequate or fearful.

''I did even worse. I completely took myself out of their lives,'' Persson said during a recent telephone interview from Petersburgh Federal Correctional Institute in Virginia. ''They're two great kids, and they have so much potential. It's not about what I'm missing that gets to me -- I can get by with anything -- it's that I can't be there for them when they need me.''

FIRST SENTENCED UNDER NEW RULES

In 1994, Persson sold a small amount of heroin and cocaine to Michael ''Hardball'' Corey, a friend and drug abuser. Despite becoming violently ill from snorting heroin, Corey made two trips to Persson for drugs. The next day he was found dead.

Selling a small amount of drugs is rarely a federal crime, but the U.S. Attorney's Office charged Persson, making him the first person in Maine charged under a then-new federal law mandating stiff penalties for people who sell drugs to users who later die from them.

Advocates for the heavy penalties said drug trafficking is a national problem that must be dealt with severely, and someone serving a long sentence won't be free to threaten society.

If he had been convicted at trial, Persson likely would have been sentenced to life in prison because he had done time in state prison for selling cocaine and was out on bail on a pending charge of aggravated assault stemming from a bar fight.

Instead he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years.

Persson landed in notorious Lewisburg penitentiary. There, he knew inmates who were killed and others who killed themselves, some who continued to do drugs and countless more wasting away in front of the television.

''I came to the point where I realized, either this is all there is going to be for me and I might as well be dead, or I need to make something better of myself and my situation,'' Persson said. ''At that point, I needed to strive to understand myself and understand why I was where I was.''

EARLY ALCOHOL, DRUG ABUSE

Lance Persson had his first beer at 9 years old and had tried pot by age 11. Drug use was routine by the time he was a teenager.

Persson says he was never comfortable with himself, and drinking that first half a beer at 9 years old made him feel ''like Superman.'' By 13 he was trying cocaine, at 15 heroin.

''It let me feel comfortable within my skin,'' Persson said, during the recent telephone interview. He now says he let himself be deceived, as so many people do. ''It's a false sense of feeling good. It's not about the people we can be, it's about hiding from the things that may have bothered us.''

His parents separated when he was 10 and divorced the following year. His substance abuse and rebelliousness caused him to leave Kennebunk and start school in Saco where his father lived. At one point, after disappearing for two weeks, he was sent to Jackson Brook Institute for rehabilitation.

Persson made the varsity football squad as a freshman at Kennebunk High School, but he showed up drunk one day. Following an argument with the coach, he quit.

Eventually he quit high school and was living with friends and then on his own. He was selling small amounts of drugs to support his own use and for the prestige that comes with being a dealer, he said.

''To me it's not just about the easy and quick money. We all have feelings of helplessness and hopelessness and issues with power. When you sell drugs, that almost brings one up in the world, in that culture.''

His parents tried desperately to intervene, to get him help, but without success.

Police arrested Persson when he was 19 for selling cocaine. He was sent to prison for a year. The year was not enough to smarten him up, he says.

He vowed not to use cocaine when he got out. He substituted alcohol instead, drinking daily while working on a painting crew in the Kennebunk area.

Five months before Corey's death, Persson tried cocaine again. It was like he had never stopped.

''The minute I started, I was right back to the exact point of my addiction where I was,'' he said. ''It was disgusting, and I knew it.''

Persson also had a huge chip on his shoulder. He was intolerant of anyone who insulted him, and that led to fights. In February 1993, he beat up a man outside an Arundel bar and was charged with aggravated assault, a violent felony.

Three weeks later, Persson was free on bail. That's when he sold drugs to -- and used drugs with -- Corey on the night he died.

Prosecutors charged Persson with causing Corey's death and offered a deal: Plead guilty and spend 20 years in prison or go to trial and, if convicted, go to jail for life.

''The guy's only 22 -- a life sentence is forever,'' Persson's mother said, recalling the surreal experience of helping her son decide his fate.

A CHANGED MAN

Persson said his first time walking down the hall at the Lewisburg prison, he knew that his life had changed radically.

''I've seen people basically get cut from ear to ear for messing with the television,'' he said. ''I've seen people cut in line and almost get their throat cut.'' Untreated mental illness and suicide attempts are not unusual.

Persson avoided the worst. He started reading, Dostoevsky and Solzenitzen and Shakespeare.

He spent 3½ years in Lewisburg before transferring to a medium security facility where he found a book listing educational programs available at different prisons. He applied for and was granted a transfer to a Wisconsin prison so he could pursue a two-year liberal arts degree.

He also took courses in Raybrook and Lake Placid, N.Y., and was valedictorian of a year-long substance abuse studies program. He studied to be a nurse's assistant and cared for seriously ill inmates at Federal Medical Center Devens in Massachusetts.

Although a treatment facility, the prison there was like a hospice, with many inmates nearing the end of their lives. Persson bathed them, cleaned up after them, helped them in and out of wheelchairs, and read and wrote for those who had gone blind. He lived on the same floor as the patients and helped run the inmate companion program.

''It was becoming too much for me,'' he said. ''I saw too many people dying and too many people not receiving the treatment I thought they should.''

SUPPORT FROM PRESIDENT'S AUNT

While at Devens, Persson met Robert McLaughlin and Nancy Bush Ellis, the president's aunt, who summers in Kennebunkport. McLaughlin and Ellis attend the Church on the Cape, a Methodist congregation in Cape Porpoise. The congregation had become aware of Persson's personal growth through a member who had been one of Persson's schoolteachers, who saw in him a good person shrouded in self-destructive behavior.

Persson had attended the church occasionally with a friend as a young boy, and had even sung in the choir. His mother now attends the church, which is across the street from her home and the seasonal restaurant she runs.

''He's not a bitter person,'' said McLaughlin, who shares an interest in Buddhism with Persson and corresponds with him regularly. ''He was really dealt a bad hand, but the time in prison was a gift to him. Instead of losing his life, he found his life.'' McLaughlin, Ellis, who could not be reached for comment, and other church members visited Persson in prison.

Persson and his advocates started pursuing commutation of his sentence more than three years ago.

Ellis, sister to former President George Bush, offered to intercede on Persson's behalf, recalling her nephew's compassion as governor of Texas and because of her familiarity with his staff, McLaughlin said.

''As governor, his aunt would say he had a very good policy dealing with inmates. He was very compassionate,'' McLaughlin said. ''This gave us a lot of hope.''

The application seems to have made little headway.

A Justice Department spokesman would only confirm that Persson applied for commutation on Nov. 19, 2004, and that the application is still pending. He would provide no further details on the case. U.S. Attorney Paula Silsby also would not comment about the case, including whether the White House had asked for a recommendation.

FEW REQUESTS GRANTED

Clemency can be granted either in the form of a pardon, which expunges an offense from a person's record, or commutation, which reduces the sentence. Requests are submitted to the U.S. pardon attorney, who may or may not forward them to the president for action.

In addition to the crime and punishment received, the pardon attorney considers input from the Bureau of Prisons, from prosecutors and from the victim.

Critics note that President Bush has approved far fewer clemency applications than previous presidents, including his father. The Department of Justice says more than 2,500 clemency petitions are pending. Bush has granted 142 pardons and four commutations since taking office, according to the Justice Department. One of those commutations was granted to former vice presidential aide Lewis ''Scooter'' Libby.

The U.S. attorney when Persson was sentenced, Jay McCloskey, says convicting Persson of causing Corey's death would be a challenge now as a result of recent Supreme Court decisions.

''I agree that if Persson's case were heard today, the government would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the distribution 'caused' the death,'' McCloskey wrote to Persson's lawyer in 2005, in a letter supporting his commutation request. ''Given the other drugs in Michael Corey's system, it is unclear whether the government could sustain such a burden.

''Based on his self-improvement in prison, it appears that a reduction or commutation in his sentence to no more than fourteen and a half years is warranted,'' he wrote. He sent a copy of the letter to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Margaret Love was the U.S. pardon attorney under President Bill Clinton, a Justice Department position that evaluates clemency requests. She now is in private practice helping clients navigate the clemency process.

Love has been impressed with Persson, one reason she represents him even though he and his family can't afford her.

''He's not letting his time do him,'' she said of Persson's efforts at self-improvement.

Still, she said, Persson's prospects for commutation are pretty bleak.

The problem for politicians is that it can be a political liability if a person granted clemency offends again. Love is not sympathetic.

''There are always going to be cases that don't turn out right. If you are so risk averse that you don't want to do any cases for fear maybe one of them is not going to work out, I don't know why you want to be president. It's part of the job,'' Love said.

''This is not exactly Pablo Escobar making a fortune off selling drugs to all the little schoolchildren. This is a junkie kid who had a horrible childhood and was a mess,'' she said. ''It's just a sad story.''

VICTIM'S MOM

The judge who sentenced Persson went as far as he could under federal guidelines to reduce his prison term to 20 years. With good time credits, he would be free after about 17 years -- a little less than three years from now.

The case shows that taking away judges' flexibility can lead to inappropriately harsh sentences, says Mary Price, vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. The group has featured Persson on its Web site, and, while it supports his clemency request, it believes changing sentencing laws is the correct remedy.

But the war on drugs and getting tough on crime have been popular platforms for some politicians, especially as the drug problem and associated crime are issues in almost every corner of the country. Harsh penalties are needed to show would-be drug traffickers and the public that the government is serious about the crackdown. And while the penalties seem to have done little to deter the problem, at least long prison sentences keep drug dealers off the street.

Angelina Corey hopes her son is not lost in the debate. She said she thinks about Michael every day and doubts the pain of losing him will ever go away.

''He was a really happy-go-lucky kid,'' she said. ''He's missed his whole life.''

''I always felt very sorry for (Persson's) mother, that she had to put up with that, but my son died,'' Corey said. ''She'll have hers back in 20 years.''

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

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