A Founder Looks at 50: Focusing on Victims

NORML Founder Keith Stroup
NORML Founder Keith Stroup

For NORML’s 50th anniversary, every Friday we will be posting a blog from NORML’s Founder Keith Stroup as he reflects back on a lifetime as America’s foremost marijuana smoker and legalization advocate. This is the thirteenth in a series of blogs on the history of NORML and the legalization movement.

One of the most effective tactics for generating favorable public support for ending marijuana prohibition is to focus on the victims, the more than 600,000 Americans who are still arrested on marijuana charges each year in this country. It is a way to underscore the point that when we talk about marijuana arrests, we are not just talking about numbers, we are talking about real people with hopes and dreams and professional goals who are scarred for life with the unfair baggage of a criminal arrest or conviction. Marijuana prohibition is not just unfair; it is incredibly destructive to millions of people.

The Leverage of the Press

All too often, by the time we are aware of the situation, these non-violent marijuana offenders are already saddled with a substantial prison sentence with no immediate relief available. Their only option is to serve out their sentence and then try to rebuild their lives and careers. But occasionally, when the facts underlying the conviction are especially unfair or the sentence is especially egregious, it is possible to get the attention of the media to convey to the public that this was a terribly unfair outcome – to basically embarrass the criminal justice establishment into coming up with some relief. When a specific case gets major media attention, the courts or the legislature or the governor can sometimes be persuaded to act in a humane manner in order to protect their public reputation. 

Sometimes, when there are no valid legal appeals or other legal options available, it is necessary just to show up and begin to make some noise – or “good trouble,” as the late Congressman  John Lewis would say. That was the situation when we learned about the Jerry Mitchell case in West Plains, Missouri.

The Jerry Mitchell Case

Jerry Mitchell was a 19-year old college freshman at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield when his world came crashing down. One weekend, he was visiting his parents, who were both blind, in West Plains, a farming community of 7,100 hundred people in south-central Missouri. Jerry, who had served on the student council in high school, was majoring in philosophy and political science and had never been arrested. 

Jerry was being bugged by some new kid in town to help him find a couple of joints. He  turned the fellow down on a couple of occasions, but finally picked up 1/3 of an ounce of homegrown from a local source and sold it to the new kid for $5.00. It turned out the new kid in town was an undercover agent and Jerry was arrested, convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

When Circuit Judge Winston Buford sentenced Jerry Mitchell on June 13th, 1976, to twelve years confinement, what weighed most heavily against Mitchell was that he was the first person ever busted in that county for selling pot. Pot sellers back then were considered evil and dangerous people, especially in the rural sections of the country.  “It’s a conservative area here,” said Jerry’s father, Roy. “They wanted to make an example of him, that’s why they took him away from us.”

Sometimes One Just Has to Show Up and Cause “Good Trouble”

When we first heard about this case, I contacted Mitchell and arranged to fly out to Missouri to visit him in prison, and I asked prominent San Francisco criminal defense attorney Michael Stepanian, a founding member of the NORML Legal Committee (NLC), to meet me there, along with Mitchell’s local attorney Howard Eiseberg from Kansas City, also an NLC attorney. We met with Mitchell’s parents and agreed on a strategy of trying to place public pressure on the governor to pardon Mitchell. We knew there was a possibility that the publicity might anger the governor, and backfire on Jerry, but we saw few alternatives. We also scheduled a meeting with the sentencing judge, who at first was hostile because he thought we were some “out of state troublemakers,” but after some discussion accepted the reality that we were sincerely interested in helping this young man, pro bono

John Walsh, Michael Stepanian, and Hunter S. Thompson at the 1977 NORML Conference

We told Judge Buford we were there to file a motion arguing for Mitchell’s release from prison on bond while we appealed his underlying conviction, and he indicated he might favorably consider such a motion. The judge also suggested that we file a motion to reconsider the sentence, suggesting that he might be amenable to a shorter sentence, and we wasted no time getting that motion filed as well.

The judge quickly granted our motion for bond pending appeal, allowing Mitchell to be released from prison, and shortly thereafter he reduced Mitchell’s sentence from twelve years to seven years. That was a major victory, but it still left this young man looking at a terribly long prison sentence, should his appeals be rejected. 

We continued to file appeals, including a federal appeal, but in the end, the courts still denied our request and the state took Jerry Mitchell, who had resumed his college career, back into prison to serve the balance of his 7-year sentence. 

But it turns out our work had not been in vain. While the legal appeals had been denied, within a few months the parole board in Missouri decided that they no longer wished to have the bad publicity of the Mitchell case showing up in more and more media and they issued an order releasing him on parole.  

We had succeeded in planting favorable stories in a number of major national publications, including Playboy, High Times, and Rolling Stone; and perhaps most importantly, a two-page feature focusing on the Mitchell case and calling for his release ran in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the largest and most influential paper in Missouri. I had even managed to get booked on the Phil Donahue’s television show to discuss the Mitchell case and Donahue showed a taped interview with Mitchell in prison, discussing what his sentence had done to him and his parents. 

While our legal work had failed to achieve our goal, our press work had succeeded. Jerry Mitchell was now a free man. We had managed to cause some “good trouble.”

I don’t want to pretend that these occasional victories occur frequently, as they do not. They generally require hundreds of hours of legal work by some dedicated pro bono attorneys, and in most cases, the effort is unsuccessful. The exhilaration of occasionally helping get someone freed from jail or prison must always be tempered by the knowledge that the next victim is just around the corner. Even today, despite our decades of progress, we have no shortage of victims.

1978 St Louis Dispatch clipping of Jerry Mitchell trial