A 71-year-old man sentenced to 98 years in prison for conspiring to smuggle weed into Florida is expected to be freed from prison next month, thanks to the hardworking efforts of cannabis advocates and attorneys.
Richard DeLisi was convicted in 1989 for agreeing to take part in an imaginary cannabis smuggling scheme dreamed up by Florida cops. DeLisi was nabbed in a reverse-sting operation, a form of entrapment in which police deliberately set up civilians who they think are likely to commit a crime. In this specific case, US customs and IRS officials worked with Florida cops to create a fictitious criminal conspiracy focused on ensnaring DeLisi and his brother Ted.
A government informant named James White contacted the DeLisi brothers and convinced them to get involved in this fake conspiracy. Richard DeLisi told White that he was willing to smuggle weed into Florida in a conversation that was secretly recorded by police. Based on this evidence, the brothers were arrested and charged with a criminal conspiracy to traffic weed into Florida.
Reverse-sting entrapment is considered a highly controversial police tactic, and is actually illegal in many countries. Yet in Florida, like most other US states, this kind of entrapment is completely legal. Both brothers were arrested simply because Richard agreed to traffic marijuana – but neither of them actually committed the crime.
To make matters worse, both brothers were tried under a RICO criminal conspiracy charge. Although the standard prison sentence for marijuana trafficking is 12 to 17 years, the additional conspiracy and racketeering charges allowed the judge to add decades to their sentences. Richard was ultimately sentenced to 98 years in prison.
Ted DeLisi received a similar sentence, but was eventually able to appeal his conviction and was released in 2013 after serving 31 years in jail. The appeals court found that the only evidence in the case was one single fingerprint on a map of South America, which they ruled was insufficient evidence to put him behind bars for life.
Richard DeLisi was unable to make a similar appeal because he was caught on tape agreeing to commit the crime. So even as his brother finally walked free, Richard remained locked behind bars. At the age of 71, DeLisi is suffering from arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and several other issues. While he has been imprisoned, his parents, wife, and his son have all passed away.
Now, with the help of the Last Prisoner Project and pro-bono attorneys Chiara Juster, Elizabeth Buchanan, and Michael Minardi, the Florida Department of Corrections has agreed to release DeLisi sometime next month. “We’re planning a little party for him and a long-time friend is getting him a job in Fort Lauderdale City,” Ted DeLisi told Leafly. “I believe that advocacy efforts, including the work done by the Last Prisoner’s Project, had a definite impact on pushing for his release as they argued on the basis of good behavior time in prison.”
Richard DeLisi has been imprisoned for a cannabis-related offense for longer than any other American, even though he did not actually even commit the crime he was charged with. There are currently at least 70 other people serving life sentences for nonviolent cannabis crimes across the country, and like DeLisi, many of these are elderly inmates who are suffering from serious medical conditions and at high risk for contracting COVID-19 in prison.