Why you should care

Because being tough on crime may not be the same as being smart on crime.

Busted at 17 in Detroit with 8 kilos of cocaine, Richard Wershe Jr. — or White Boy Rick — is in the 29th year of a life sentence. The teenager, who caused a media frenzy on account of his skin color, age and immersion into the Black criminal underworld of Motown in the ’90s, was sentenced under Michigan’s 650 Lifer Law. That law was later condemned as unjust and eventually repealed, yet Rick, an almost 50-year-old grandfather who’s never held his grandkids, remains in prison.

Rick was recruited by a narcotics task force at the height of the crack era and sent out to infiltrate Detroit’s inner-city drug crews. He was 14 at the time, and bodies were dropping left and right and the city’s streets were stained by the blood of rival crack dealers gunned down in the name of the almighty dollar. Rick worked for the task force for close to two years before they cut him loose. Well trained by the feds, Rick sold drugs on his own for about a year before he was arrested and sent to prison.

The case has attracted a lot of attention over the years, and a movie starring Matthew McConaughey is in the works. A documentary by Shawn Rech, White Boy, premieres at the Freep Film Festival on March 31 in Rick’s hometown of Detroit. So talking with Rech right about now seemed to make a lot of sense.

Viewers will be shocked when they see what happened to this kid.

 

There are lots of guys in jail who got raw deals. Why a movie about Rick?

Shawn Rech: I wanted to dissect an over-sentencing. So many people say, “Screw them, they’re criminals, they shouldn’t have done it in the first place.” But in doing so they are failing to examine inequity in the justice system. Unfair sentences harm the justice system. The inmate isn’t the only one that suffers. Courts everywhere lose credibility with these crazy, disproportionate sentences.

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The director and his Emmys.

Source Photo courtesy of Transitions Studio

With that being said, once we dug in, it became obvious that Rick wasn’t just the victim of a crazy sentence, and this wasn’t random at all. This was a demonstrable case of outright revenge. Viewers will be shocked when they see what happened to this kid. What I think they’ll find especially unnerving is that it could have happened to many of us if we were put in the wrong circumstances.

So “revenge” is why he’s still in prison?

SR: Rick is still in prison because he helped the federal government try to take down corrupt politicians and police commanders. When Rick sold dope on his own for a short period of time, he gave the city an opportunity to gain control of his life before the feds could protect him. It was a tragic aligning of the stars. His mistake — a mistake that many young people make — should have cost him a few years of freedom. Instead it’s destroyed him and taken away the prime of his life.

He was portrayed as Al Capone, and they got away with it. I hope people feel angry enough to demand action. I hope they Google Rick’s name and read about him being freed. But if they don’t, I would hope our viewers cause a groundswell of support for Rick. And I hope that causes some changes, not just in Rick’s case, but in the justice system.

You know, it seems to me they never get the real bad guys. They get whoever they can get, then they tell everyone they’re the real bad guys. Meanwhile the real kingpins are sitting at home laughing and counting their money. And oftentimes in this drug war, the authorities’ behavior is as bizarre as the criminals’. I’m fascinated by entrapment. The notion of arresting someone for a crime that wouldn’t exist if the government hadn’t created the opportunity blows my mind. And when you think about it, if the federal government hadn’t encouraged Rick to learn and get involved in the drug trade, would he ever have touched a drug? And now he’s sitting in prison for life?

Without spoiling the film, any other shocks?

SR: What surprised me most, and it was a pleasant surprise, was the willingness of retired FBI agents to get in front of a camera and tell the truth. This is bad stuff, and they are probably taking big risks confirming how a child was used illegally to infiltrate a dangerous drug gang.

The other part that surprised me was gaining access to a hit man who admitted to killing 30 people, as well as a drug lord who made hundreds of millions selling drugs in the ’80s. They sat for the camera and told all. There’s one point in the movie where we hear from both a hit man and his target, telling the same story of an attempted hit. And their stories matched perfectly. I never imagined ever editing something like that into a scene of a documentary.

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