Florida Weed Inmate Serving 90 Years in Prison Released

Soft Secrets
11 Dec 2020

In 1989, Richard DeLisi received a draconian sentence for his involvement in marijuana trafficking. He was charged with 90 years to prison as the judge falsely suspected he was part of a larger criminal group. 

Convicted when the world had less liberal stances on cannabis, Richard DeLisi came out a free man at 71 years of age into a world where most countries have legalized cannabis in some form. After DeLisi ended behind bars some three decades ago, his family fell apart. He has lost his wife, his 23-year-old son, and both parents. His daughter suffered a paralyzing stroke following a catastrophic car accident.

Major news media outlets that have covered his story have described his case as a "lifetime of missed memories." DeLisi served his sentence in Florida's South Bay Correctional Facility in Palm Beach County. He walked out of jail on Tuesday, December 8, after doing a total of 31 years. The man said that he would not grieve time he'll never get back, nor that he feels anger. He instead will take every opportunity to express gratitude and hope, he said. Close family members greeted him in tears as he walked out of prison, eager to compensate for the life lost to prison.

According to The Last Prisoner Project, the non-profit which championed DeLisi's release, he is believed to have been the longest-serving nonviolent cannabis prisoner. While DeLisis’s family has spent over $250,000 on paying attorneys and over $80,000 on long-distance international collect calls over the last decades, his case was now handled by Chiara Juster, a former Florida prosecutor pro bono for The Last Prisoner Project.

Juster has criticized DeLisis’ lengthy sentence as “a sick indictment of our nation.” The Florida Department of Correction on the other hand commented that the shortening of DeLisi's sentence had nothing to do with any outside parties' efforts. The department reviews inmate records every once and a while, and according to a recent review, DeLisi's records showed he had not been awarded 390 days of provisional release credits for several months immediately following his reception into agency custody in 1989. The resulting adjustment eventually influenced his release date, initially scheduled for 2022, reports Florida's news outlet The Ledger.

Upon his release, the man was finally able to meet for the very first time his two granddaughters, aged 11- and 1-year-old. “I’m a blessed human being, a survivor,” DeLisi said in a phone interview with the Associated Press a day after his release while he was in the parking lot of his favorite hamburger joint accompanied by family members.

The man received a harsh sentence in 1989, aged 40, on charges of marijuana trafficking, conspiracy marijuana trafficking, and a violation of the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act, which prosecutes those partaking in criminal networks. Richard was convicted along with his brother, Ted DeLisi. Both brothers received three consecutive 30-year sentences, against judicial guidelines that proposed sentences between 12 and 17 years in prison.

As DeLisi has commented, he assumes he picked a lengthier sentence as the judge mistakenly thought he was part of an organized criminal network. His Italian from New York origin did not help either. DeLisi has said that prison has changed him profoundly, especially in communicating with people and how to treat people, he said. In prison, he also became a mentor to younger inmates. “For me, being there so long, I was able to take gang members from gangs to gentlemen,” he said.

At the time DeLisi went to prison, he didn’t know how to read and write. Since then, he has learned to read and write, and eventually, he improved his English, which had "a thick Italian accent." With his organization FreeDeLisi.com, he now wants to help the release of other inmates.

“The system needs to change and I’m going to try my best to be an activist,” DeLisi said. His son, Rick DeLisi, has said that his family virtually broke after his father’s sentence.

Rick DeLisi would have only been 11 years old when he waved his father goodbye from the courtroom. “It’s just kind of like torment on your soul for 31 years,” the now 41-year-old Rick DeLisi said.

The sentence was a blow for his mother, who never recovered. His brother died from an overdose, and his sister endured a terrible car accident. At 17 years of age, Rick DeLisi decided to flee the country and build a new happier life overseas. Now he's a successful business owner with a spouse and three kids living in Amsterdam. He said he couldn’t wait to bring his father overseas and to their vacation house in Hawaii.

“I was kind of robbed of my whole life so I just appreciate that I can witness it, but on the other hand I feel like isn’t somebody responsible? Is there somebody that can answer to this?” said Rick DeLisi. "I can't believe they did this to my father. I can't believe they did this to my family," he said.

"There's a feeling of who's responsible for this debt in my mind, and justice," he said. "I don't mean debt with money. I mean something more valuable. Time. Something you can never get back." The DeLisi brothers lived in Broward County in southeastern Florida. They were taken into custody and tried in Polk County, central Florida. While Ted DeLisi successfully appealed his conspiracy conviction and was released from prison in 2013, Richard DeLisi's appeal was at the time rejected.

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