Life in prison. Without possibility of parole. For a nonviolent marijuana offense.
Let the reality of that sink in for a minute. No, this isn’t happening in some backwards, third world country. It is happening right here in the United States of America.
Were the sentence of life in prison for marijuana not absurd enough, California native Paul Free, 64, has the distinction of serving over 21 years and counting on a life sentence for a nonviolent marijuana crime he can clearly prove he not only did not commit, but also physically could not possibly have committed.
The ironically named Free was found guilty of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance (marijuana) in 1995.
Free, who previously served three years for a prior conviction for conspiracy to import a non-narcotic (marijuana) and one for the possession with intent to deliver a few pounds of that same pot, originally thought he was simply being set up for the crime that would put him behind bars for life.
It wasn’t until the end of Free’s trial that he came to realize there actually was a man named Paul involved in the case, but it was a different Paul, one named Paul Atkinson. One who did not match his physical description at all.
A Bad Attorney, A Bad Trial
Two witnesses came forward during trial, separately from each other. Their attorneys informed Free’s attorney that each had seen Paul Free in the courtroom and realized that he was NOT the person with whom they distributed marijuana. When Free asked his attorney to bring these men into court to testify, the attorney refused.
Free then requested for his accuser to pick him out of a line up.
At first the prosecutor refused, but finally agreed with two conditions: it was to only be a photo line up, and Paul Free’s attorney was not to be present when it happened. Even more unbelievable, Free’s so-called “defense” attorney agreed!
Free then implored the judge to allow him to replace his attorney, telling the judge, “my attorney refuses to interview or subpoena witnesses.”
The judge denied the request. This same judge fell asleep on the bench five times during Paul Free’s trial.
Life Behind Bars
Paul Free has spent the last two decades in prison trying to get anyone in a position of legal authority to hear his appeal. So far to no avail. He has hired private investigators, most of whom took his money – which was difficult to save on a prisoner’s slave wages — and disappeared never to be heard from again.
But some did come through. In the interim time other defendants convicted in the same conspiracy case have been interviewed and have signed affidavits swearing that Paul Free is not the man with whom they committed the charged crimes.
Just recently, the man who picked Free out of that infamous photo line-up and testified on the stand against him said that when he told the officers that he didn’t recognize anyone in the photo line up, one of the officers took his finger, placed it on a photo of Paul Free and informed him “that’s the man we want, that’s Paul Free.” This same witness said he was threatened with death if he did not cooperate and testify against Free and has only come forward now that Paul Atkinson, the real Paul in this case, has passed away and is no longer a threat.
Beyond witness testimony, Paul Free has physical evidence – hotel and car rental receipts, phone bills, a traffic ticket and a sworn affidavit from his college professor that establish beyond any doubt that he was hundreds of miles from where the crime took place when it took place. He would have had to be in a science fiction time warp that allowed him to arrive before he left to physically have been able to transport the load of marijuana for which he now serves time.
Nonetheless, the court has turned a blind eye to Free’s motions for appeal and to introduce the compelling new evidence and witness testimony that indisputably proves his innocence. The reasons given for denial show the presiding judges never so much as read the first page. Sadly, prisoners’ motions and appeals are regularly denied without so much as a glance.
While he enters his 21st year of incarceration, Paul Free remains cautiously hopeful that someone at the ninth circuit court appeals is paying attention when he sends in evidence of the latest witness in a line who have come forward to say he is not the guy who did this crime — and let’s remind ourselves, the “crime” in question that carries a LIFE SENTENCE involves nothing more than marijuana.
But Paul Free has been through this enough times to know the court has a habit of not looking at things they don’t want to see, especially when it involves wrong doing by members of their own team. The courts never comment on or dispute any of Paul Free’s evidence, they just summarily deny his motions.
In the absence of a fair trial, even decades later, Free’s best hope lies with executive clemency. He asks that supporters sign the petition started by his advocates, asking for President Obama to grant group clemency to nonviolent drug offenders serving life sentences, and to periodically check out his website or Facebook page for news and updates and how you can help with letters of support for new appeals and release efforts.
On his website, Paul Free asks everyone to help, “even if all you can do is pray.”
How You Can Help
Paul had used the last 20 years to educate himself on the law and has done the leg work, but chances of the court paying attention are much higher if it comes from an attorney as opposed to a prisoner. If you can help or if you are interested in more information, please contact Paul’s representative on the outside, Cheri Sicard ().
Paul loves getting cards and letters from supporters.
Write to him here:
Paul E Free #42235-198
United States Penitentiary
PO Box 19001
Atwater, CA 95301
Want to help more? Here’s how to put money directly onto a prisoner’s books — no middle man, ALL of the money goes DIRECTLY to the prisoner – to be used for phone calls, email, legal expenses, food, personal hygiene items, etc.:
Send a postal money order (yes it must be a POSTAL money order or the Bureau of Prisons will not accept it) to:
Federal Bureau of Prisons
Inmate Name, Inmate Register Number
(in this case Paul E Free #42235-198)
Post Office Box 474701
Des Moines, Iowa 50947-0001
or go to Western Union and find the link on the bottom of the page “send money to an inmate.”
Editor’s note: Cheri Sicard is a dedicated cannabis activist, the author of “The Cannabis Gourmet Cookbook (2012 Z-Dog Media) and the upcoming “Mary Jane: The Complete Marijuana Handbook for Women” (Seal Press, release date 4-20-15). Her blog is www.CannabisCheri.com.