‘The Sentence of Michael Thompson’ was an injustice

SANTA BARBARA (News4usonline) – You can say and do a lot of things in 24 minutes. Twenty-four minutes is exactly how long the film short “The Sentence of Michael Thompson” is. And it packs a wallop.  

The filmmakers of “The Sentence of Michael Thompson,” managed to squeeze in the lucrative growth of the cannabis industry, a dive into the criminal justice system, the importance of family, and how one man was able to navigate more than two decades behind bars before he was able to call himself a free man.

“The Sentence of Michael Thompson” pulls at the heartstrings. It also gives audiences a  sobering look at the reality that marijuana, long deemed to be an illicit drug, is a legal cash cow today.

Thousands, if not millions of people are making money off of marijuana these days now that as many as 18 states and other jurisdictions have made cannabis legal to buy and consume.

Michael Thompson, who holds the unfortunate distinction of being the state of Michigan’s longest-serving nonviolent offender, didn’t have the luxury of walking into a marijuana dispensary to legally pick up some weed.

Michael Thompson (center) is flanked by his daughter, Lashawnda Littles, and his attorney, Kim Corral. Courtesy photo

Nor was Thompson, who is 70 today, afforded the opportunity to be his own boss and legally sell marijuana in his own shop. It wasn’t until 2018 when Michigan voters gave the green light for legal recreational marijuana use that Thompson’s fight for freedom would gain more traction. The change in the law had an indirect effect on Thompson being released from prison two years later.   

There are several things that “The Sentence of Michael Thompson” successfully reveals. The first thing that the film short highlights is how profitable legalized cannabis has become. 

The second item the Kyle Thrash and Haley Elizabeth Anderson-directed “war on drugs” documentary unveils is the punishing harsh incarceration terms that individuals like Thompson have been subjected to as nonviolent offenders.

To be blunt, “The Sentence of Michael Thompson,” is an unapologetic look at racial and social inequities through the prism of the “war on drugs” campaign, first adopted by President Richard Nixon.

In its 2018 The Drug War, Mass Incarceration Race report, the Drug Policy Alliance states that Black and Hispanics make up the most spots in federal prison for drug offenses. Those numbers held close to 60 percent in state prisons. Michael Thompson was one of those offenders languishing behind bars in a state prison in Michigan.    

That’s because what was illegal to do back then is now legal. Selling pot is big business. Legalized marijuana sales have gone through the roof in recent years. Those sales are expected to soar even further in the foreseeable future.

Cannabis sales are expected to exceed $25 billion in the United States by 2025, according to statista, a data-driven website.

Michael Thompson with loved ones as they celebrate his freedom after 22 years in prison. Courtesy photo

To illustrate the growing popularity of buying and selling marijuana, the state of California brought in sales of $5.5 billion alone in 2018. By 2024, that figure is expected to jump to $7.2 billion, according to statista.

If selling cannabis was legal to sell and consume back in 1996, Thompson would not have spent 22 years of a possible 40 to 60 years prison sentence trying to sell three pounds of marijuana.

Two years after the state of Michigan gave the okay for legal recreational use of marijuana, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer commuted the sentences of Thompson and three other men for their drug convictions in 2020.

In Thompson’s case, he was busted for firearm possession by a felon charge. 

“As a former prosecutor, I recognize how critical it is to take steps toward a smarter and more equitable justice system,” Whitmer said in a released statement. “Over the last two years, we’ve worked with leaders on both sides of the aisle to make tremendous progress to give people a second chance, from reforming civil asset forfeiture to becoming a national leader on expungement.”

Whitmer continued, “These commutations offer a second chance to four individuals who have accepted responsibility and paid their debts to society and whose sentences span decades for non-violent offenses. We still have a lot of work to do, but today is a step in the right direction, and I’m confident that Michigan can continue to be a national leader in smart justice.”        

Rashawnda Littles sitting with a photo of her father, Michael Thompson. Courtesy photo

The odyssey of Thompson and his appeal to the Michigan Parole Board to overturn his conviction is played on the big screen in a riveting documentary short that made its way to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

“The Sentence of Michael Thompson,” more than anything else, gains traction about prisoners languishing behind bars for extended periods as non-violent offenders. 

When we finally get to see Thompson in “The Sentence of Michael Thompson, he is a grandfather, an elderly man whose words are measured and thoughtful.

“I’m not that person anymore,” Thompson says at his hearing before the parole board.

What “The Sentence of Michael Thompson” also does well is that it draws up a very vivid picture of the behind-the-scenes anguish that families go through as they meditate and grapple with the possibility that a mom or dad or sister or brother may never get the opportunity to come home to family again.

Rashawnda Littles, Thompson’s daughter, is a mother. The film short is narrated through the emotional prism of Littles’ eyes. There is hope, despair, and a little anger that comes out as Littles, along with Thompson’s attorney, Kim Corral, work on trying to undo the damage done to so many men and women of color, thanks to the “war on drugs” campaign.

What we get in “The Sentence of Michael Thompson” is a redemption story for a man longing to be with his loved ones in his later years. It is also an oxymoron of a tale between different generations.

The “war of drugs” was a signal from a different time in America. The country’s movement towards certain cultural freedoms and liberties five decades later helped open the doors of freedom for Michael Thompson.