An Aroostook County man who uses a wheelchair and is serving a life sentence for marijuana smuggling has renewed a request for compassionate release after recovering from the coronavirus in federal prison.
Michael Pelletier, 64, of St. David first asked U.S. District Judge John Woodcock in August to release him so he could live with a brother in Florida because of his heightened risk for the virus.
Pelletier was one of more than 90 inmates confined to the federal prison at Terre Haute, Indiana, who has tested positive for the virus, according to court documents. He contracted the virus in September and recovered but it is unclear from court documents what symptoms he had or how ill he became. The inmate who pushed Pelletier’s wheelchair is one of two prisoners who died during the outbreak.
Pelletier has been paralyzed from the waist down since he was injured in a farm accident at age 11. He received disability benefits for decades because of that injury. He has been incarcerated either awaiting trial or serving his sentence on federal charges since September 2006.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Maine opposes Pelletier’s release but concedes that he has met the required extraordinary and compelling reason for compassionate release. In addition to surviving the virus, Pelletier is prediabetic and nearly obese, according to court documents. He also can no longer propel his wheelchair himself due to shoulder pain. Pelletier has faced no disciplinary action while incarcerated.
To qualify for compassionate release, a prisoner must be at least 65 and experiencing a serious deterioration in physical or mental health because of the aging process. The prisoner must also have served at least 10 years or 75 percent of his or her term of imprisonment, whichever is less. Pelletier will meet all of those requirements when he turns 65 in January, according to his attorney, Scott Hess of Augusta.
In his latest filing, Hess argued Pelletier is at risk of being reinfected with COVID-19 in prison and that the long-lasting health problems virus survivors may develop are best treated outside prison walls. The defense also has said that marijuana laws across the country have changed dramatically in this past decade. As of the Nov. 3 election, pot is legal for medicinal purposes in 36 states and for all purposes in 15 states.
To facilitate Pelletier’s release, Hess has asked Woodcock, who presided over Pelletier’s trial and sentenced him to life in prison, to reduce Pelletier’s sentence to 10 years and order him to be supervised by U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services for a period of time.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joel Casey, who prosecuted Pelletier, argued in a response filed last week that “while it is possible that he could contract COVID-19 again, Pelletier is proof positive that a federal prisoner who contracts COVID-19 will not necessarily become seriously ill or even develop symptoms.”
“Finally, it is also relevant that COVID-19 vaccines are in development,” he wrote.
The prosecutor objects to Pelletier’s possible release to Florida, where he could be more at risk to reinfection than his is in federal prison due the high number of virus cases in that state. Casey also has argued that due to his long criminal history and his ability to persuade others to engage in criminal activity with him, Pelletier poses a danger to the community if released.
Pelletier was convicted of operating a multimillion dollar drug smuggling ring, money laundering, Social Security fraud and other crimes in July 2007 after a weeklong jury trial in federal court in Bangor. The jury of four men and eight women deliberated for about 5 1/2 hours on the criminal charges and a forfeiture order before announcing its verdict.
Jurors found that Pelletier ran an international marijuana smuggling ring across the Canadian border that between Jan. 1, 2003, and March 31, 2006, operated throughout the state. Pelletier did not handle the marijuana himself, but had others bring it across the border and distribute it.
In addition to prison time, Pelletier was ordered to repay the nearly $84,000 in disability benefits he had received over a 30-year period and to forfeit the more than $4.8 million he earned from trafficking in marijuana. He also was ordered to forfeit three residential properties, two cars, a tractor and more than $20,000 in cash.
Woodcock has set a date for a hearing on Pelletier’s request for release. Pelletier’s sister, Marlene Champagne, has launched an online petition asking President Donald Trump for clemency. As of Sunday, it had gained 114,578 of the 150,000 signatures Champagne is seeking.