An Aroostook County man serving a life sentence in federal prison for running a statewide marijuana smuggling operation was among the 70 people President Donald Trump granted clemency Wednesday in his final hours in the White House.
Michael J. Pelletier, 64, of St. David had asked to be released due to health problems. A decision was pending before U.S. District Judge John Woodcock when the White House announced that Pelletier was among the 70 people to whom the outgoing president had granted clemency.
The commuting of his sentence will allow Pelletier to be released but his convictions will remain on his criminal history. Information about how soon he could be released was not available Wednesday morning.
Pelletier’s attorney, Scott Hess of Augusta, said that his client is “ecstatic.”
“Michael’s case is a prime example of the need to reexamine our laws and mandatory minimums as they apply to non-violent offenders,” Hess said. “This is especially true where so many persons are incarcerated as a result of conduct that has now been legalized on the state level.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment.
The White House announcement of Pelletier’s clemency incorrectly stated that he was serving a 30-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute marijuana. Woodcock sentenced him to life in prison in U.S. District Court in Bangor for distribution of marijuana 13 years ago this week. The judge also sentenced Pelletier to 20 years on a conspiracy conviction and other charges to be served at the same time as the life sentence.
“Mr. Pelletier has maintained a clear disciplinary record, has thrived as an artist working with oil paints on canvas, and has taken several courses to perfect his skill while incarcerated,” the White House announcement said. “Upon his release, Mr. Pelletier will have a meaningful place of employment and housing with his brother [in Florida].”
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Marlene Champagne, Pelletier’s sister, circulated an online petition for his clemency that garnered more than 115,000 signatures. CAN-DO, Justice Through Clemency, an organization that seeks clemency for non-violent drug offenders, also supported Pelletier’s case.
Pelletier has been paralyzed from the waist down and used a wheelchair since he was injured in a farm accident at age 11. He received disability benefits for decades because of that injury.
The motion seeking his release, filed in August 2020, claimed that a lack of medical care and physical therapy at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, where Pelletier is incarcerated has caused his health to deteriorate. He also claimed he was at a greater risk than other inmates for being infected with COVID-19.
Pelletier renewed his request for release in November after he recovered from the disease, according to court documents.
The U.S. attorney’s office opposed Pelletier’s release but conceded that he had met the criteria for compassionate release due to his age and deteriorating health.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joel Casey, however, objected to the Pelletier’s possible release to Florida, where he could be at greater risk of reinfection than in federal prison due the high number of virus cases in that state. Casey also argued that Pelletier posed a danger to the community if released due to his long criminal history and his ability to persuade others to engage in criminal activity with him.
In addition to surviving the virus, Pelletier is prediabetic and nearly obese, according to court documents. He can no longer propel his wheelchair himself due to shoulder pain.
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 later this month, according to his attorney, Scott Hess of Augusta.
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.
Jurors found that Pelletier ran an international marijuana smuggling ring that operated throughout the state from 2003 to 2006. 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 Social Security payments 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.