Is Michigan's Drug Law Too Tough?

College Student Serving Life Without Parole For Selling Cocaine

Here's a question. How does a young college student who's never been in trouble with the law before wind up behind bars for life – with no chance for parole?

Well, if you said he must have committed murder or something, you'd be wrong. This particular college student was convicted of selling cocaine.

As Correspondent Lesley Stahl first reported in 1996, even though this was his very first offense, mandatory sentencing laws dictated that he get life in prison, without the possibility of parole.

In 1996, David Lester was an inmate in Michigan, the state with the harshest mandatory sentences for selling cocaine. When Lester was a college senior and a professional boxer, he was convicted of selling about $18,000 worth of the drug.

During this time behind bars, he's seen guys convicted of violent crimes, like rape and armed robbery, get out while he has stayed behind. "Even rape with a pedophile, someone with a little boy or a little girl, they get out," said Lester. "And I sit here and I do life."

Forty other states have harsh mandatory sentences, all of them dependent on how much of the drug (crack, heroin or powder cocaine) the trafficker is caught with. It doesn't matter whether he is a kingpin, a first-time offender or a mule, someone paid just to carry the drug.

There are ways to beat the rap. Some drug offenders are able to get shorter sentences by agreeing to snitch on other dealers.

But that leaves thousands of small-time drug offenders like Lester who are serving lots of time with taxpayers picking up the tab. Lester said he was called the million-dollar man because "it's going to cost over a million dollars to keep me here for the next -- until I'm 50 or 55."

In 1996, Lester, who claimed he was innocent, was appealing his case. But his best hope of getting out was for the mandatory sentencing laws to change.

"It took the entire United States Army, and they went and got Manuel Noriega," says Lester. "He's the kingpin. But I'm doing more time than Noriega. Now anyone with common sense would tell you that something is wrong with that picture."

Since this story first aired in 1996, tough mandatory sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenders have been challenged all across the country.

Twenty-five states, including Michigan, have eased up because of huge prison costs and questions of just plain fairness. So thousands of inmates with long sentences have been released.

What about Lester? "I can smile every morning because I know that I'm a free man," says Lester, now 42 and out of prison. It happened partly through his own efforts. He uncovered evidence questioning the credibility of a key witness in his case.

It also happened because of changing attitudes. "The push to lock people up and throw the key away was no longer there, so I happened to come back to court at a time where the climate had changed," says Lester, who admits that the unwavering support of his parents sustained him during his time in prison.

He has a job as a clerk in a law firm in Detroit, which he got because he took a paralegal course through the mail while he was in prison. And now, he's passing on his boxing expertise, pro bono, to the kids in the neighborhood as an instructor.

"I can't win a title right now myself. But I can vicariously win a title through one of these kids, and that's just as good as winning a title myself," says Lester, who admits that what he's doing with these kids is not about just boxing. "I want to keep kids on the straight and narrow, so they never ever have to experience what I experienced in my lifetime."

Lester says he's not a bitter man, and that he's not consumed with anger. But this doesn't mean that he doesn't see injustice in what happened to him. And so he volunteers for FAMM, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an organization that continues to push for change.

"We have to educate people more, so that they'll understand what's going on with these drug laws. They're draconian. They're outdated. And something has to be done," says Lester.

Although many states have been moving away from mandatory sentencing laws, the federal government may be leaning in the other direction. The U.S. Supreme Court is now considering two important cases that, some fear, could lead Congress to impose tough mandatory minimums for a broader range of crimes.