JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. - A man sentenced to life in prison without parole on a marijuana-related charge walked out of a Missouri prison a free man on Tuesday, after spending two decades behind bars.
The release of Jeff Mizanskey followed years of lobbying from family, lawmakers and advocates for the legalization of marijuana, who argued that the sentence was too stiff.
CBS Kansas City affiliate KCTV reports the 62-year-old Mizanskey was greeted by his son and grandchildren once he was released.
Mizanskey was sentenced in 1996 after police said he conspired to sell 6 pounds of marijuana to a dealer connected to Mexican drug cartels. The life with no parole sentence was allowed under a Missouri law for persistent drug offenders; Mizanskey already had two drug convictions - one for possession and sale of marijuana in 1984 and another for possession in 1991.
Last year, Tony Nenninger, a Missouri-based attorney who took on Mizanskey's case in 2012, told 48 Hours' Crimesider that when he first heard about Mizanskey's case, he "could hardly believe it."
"The judge had to be crazy and the prosecutor has to be crazy. We need to have laws to tie their hands to (prevent) their ability to punish this extreme," Nenninger said.
Nenninger filed a petition for clemency on behalf of Mizanskey to Missouri Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. In May, Gov. Nixon agreed to commute Mizanskey's sentence. The governor's action allowed Mizanskey to then argue for his freedom before a parole board.
Nixon cited Mizanskey's nonviolent record, noting that none of his offenses involved selling drugs to children. The law under which he was originally sentenced has since been changed. No other inmates in Missouri are currently serving a life sentence for a nonviolent marijuana-related offense.
Other states are reevaluating punishments for drug-possession crimes, largely motivated by the high cost of imprisoning low-level, nonviolent offenders.
In Connecticut, a new law will make possession of small amounts of hard drugs, including heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine, a misdemeanor for a first-time offense, rather than allowing for the current maximum seven-year prison sentence. Nebraska and Alabama expect to save hundreds of millions of dollars by cutting down on the number of offenders locked up for possessing small amounts of drugs under new laws.