It might have been better for Mike Anderson of Missouri if he had been sentenced to life instead of 13 years when he was convicted of armed robbery in 2000. That way the time for his release would never have arrived and, more importantly, no one would have noticed that he had never actually shown up to serve his sentence.
If this sounds like a mess, it is. After being convicted of holding up a Burger King, Anderson, 36, was sentenced and was freed on bail pending an appeal. When his appeal failed he was told to await instructions on when and where to show up to begin his incarceration. He did exactly that, except the instructions never came. The years rolled by: he got married, got a job as a carpenter, had four children and became a local soccer coach.
That would have been that – even Anderson’s wife had no clue about his past – except that after failing to bring him to prison because of a clerical error, the bureaucracy did not forget, 13 years later, to set him free, which is when the penny dropped.
Swat team arrived at his home a few days later and he was finally – extremely belatedly – cuffed and led away. He remains in jail now and a judge must decide if he should serve his original full sentence.
The predicament surrounding Anderson, who goes by Mike although his given name is Cornealious, has unleashed a raging legal controversy in Missouri and beyond. On Friday, Governor Jay Nixon received a petition from Anderson’s lawyers asking that he grant clemency on the grounds that incarcerating him now, so many years after the event, would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Not to mention that he has since become a model citizen.
“My client is a beloved father of four beautiful young children, a husband to a devoted wife, and a well-respected small businessman in St Louis,” Anderson’s lawyer, Patrick Michael Megaro, told the Governor.
“In the past 13 years, he has committed himself to being a productive and valuable member of society, and has proven that not only is he no danger to the community, but is a pillar of the community.” He added that jailing Anderson now “would be taking a good person out of society and making him bad”.
Underlining that he can no longer be deemed a threat to society, his lawyers have also noted that their client actually notified his defence team back in 2000 that the instructions to come to prison had not arrived and he was told simply to be patient. He made no attempt to hide – his real address was on his driving licence. He seems at some point to have decided that if the state was going to let it slide, for whatever reason, then so would he.
The case has drawn a flood of support for Anderson, including an online petition already signed by 30,000 people urging his release. “It’s a little overwhelming and embarrassing to me, but I can’t thank people enough,” Anderson said in a telephone interview from jail with Associated Press. “Everybody here has been positive, the prisoners and the correctional officers. I’ve had other prisoners tell me it gives them hope.”
Last week, the state’s Attorney General, Chris Koster, filed a petition with the judge handling the case saying there was no legal reason to release Anderson now, even if the state was at fault for the clerical mishap. However, he also indicated some sympathy with Anderson’s plight.
“My goal is to suggest a way for the court to appropriately balance the seriousness of Mr Anderson’s crime with the clerical error made by the criminal justice system, alongside Mr Anderson’s conduct since his commission of the crime,” Mr Foster wrote. “All three factors deserve recognition in resolving this difficult situation.”
In the meantime those urging that Anderson be released have included even the former Burger King manager, the victim of the original armed hold-up. He “has come forward and publicly stated that he believes it would be an injustice to force Mr Anderson to serve his sentence,” Mr Megaro revealed.
Also asking the state to show lenience is his wife. “It’s just very hard,” LaQonna Anderson said. “And I miss my husband very, very much. My kids miss their father.”
While many other state governors have a record of granting clemency to multiple inmates in their states, that is not the case with Governor Nixon, who has done it only once.
That leaves supporters with little obvious reason for optimism in Anderson’s case. “He’s been rehabilitated,” Jaime Halscott, also a lawyer for Anderson, argued last week.
“There’s no need to protect the community, and even if you want your pound of flesh, he’s been in prison nine months. At the end of the day, there’s no good argument that this man should be in prison.”