Donte Westmoreland: Turning Wrongful Cannabis Conviction into Action
Published on 9/8/21
In 2017, Donte Westmoreland was sentenced to 7 years in prison for the possession of marijuana with intent to distribute - even though he had no marijuana on him and had no prior convictions. Additionally, Donte was unfairly put on trial with a key witness having struck a deal to remain free, all without the court's knowledge. This misled the jurors and was the ultimate cause for Donte's conviction to be overturned 3 years after the fact. Those 3 years were spent in jail away from his family, fearing his life from the havoc that COVID brought on the prison, and so much more that should have never happened.
Unfortunately, Donte is just one of many victims of the ongoing War on Drugs. He now works with Last Prisoner Project with hopes that those incarcerated for cannabis crimes will be released someday soon. We sat down to talk with Donte about his experience - keep reading to see how he's working to change the world.
WW: From an outside point of view, your conviction and sentencing seem hard to believe - especially considering you had no prior offenses. I even read that in Kansas, 95% of defendants in cannabis distribution cases with no criminal record were given probation. Can you walk us through your case, from initial arrest to your conviction? What were you feeling throughout the process?
DW: The sentencing laws in Kansas for marijuana are over a decade old. Some judge's perceptions of marijuana are more open than others. However, we can all agree that 10 years then is not the same as 10 years now. My case is currently dismissed without prejudice which means the prosecutor within a 5 year period can re-introduce my case but I will say it was a journey that I want to share with the world.
WW: What was your mindset in jail as you were first sentenced for those 92 months? How did it feel to see cannabis legalization growing around the country?
DW: Nearly 8 years in prison is a significant amount of time for marijuana especially with no criminal record. While in prison I saw headlines that said "Dispensary in Missouri Sells Out in 48 Hours" and "7 Years in a Kansas Prison for Marijuana. Now Free, Prosecutors Will Retry Him". It is a tale of 2 Americas presented in my situation that you could not ignore.
WW: We read that you tested positive for COVID in prison, which I imagine would be quite scary given the circumstances. Could you speak more about what that experience was like?
DW: Unfortunately, I have seen inmates and prison guards pass away due to COVID. The only thought you can think of is will I be next in this situation. The question is how many prisoners serving marijuana sentences have died in custody due to COVID? We can all agree someone serving a sentence for marijuana does not deserve to be in custody let alone die.
WW: We find it really moving that you spent time speaking to troubled youth during your time in prison. Could you tell us a little more about that and what it was like? What was the message you shared?
DW: Yes, while incarcerated I was elected by the prison to go to high schools and youth centers to speak about my experience in prison and the criminal process. Our young life is the future - it is important we share experiences with them because one day they will be faced with a challenge and maybe my voice made that much of a difference towards a positive choice.
WW: Could you tell us a bit more about what it was like to leave prison and try to start a new life? What are some of the barriers you've faced now that you're out?
DW: When I came home I was fortunate enough to have a family like Last Prisoner Project in my corner. The whole team has wrapped their arms around me and it made me feel invincible. However, I still have challenges. I lost my grandmother and my younger brothers are in foster care waiting on me so my focus on success is like no other.
WW: After your release, the prosecutor had stated that they would seek to retry you. Were you worried that you might be sent back to prison? And after the case was dismissed, what did that feel like?
DW: No, I wasn't worried because I was there before, I knew if I worked hard the prosecutor would eventually understand where I am coming from. My first deal was felony time served - essentially I had my freedom at the moment. But that wasn't true freedom. True freedom is when you have no preconceived judgment in life.
WW: Could you tell us a little more about your role at Last Prisoner Project and what your goals are for the future with LPP?
DW: I am a Legacy Fellow at Last Prisoner Project - I'm coming to bring awareness through experience on all platforms. My goal is to make sure no one is left behind and continue to grow with the family at LPP.
WW: If given the chance, what would you say to those who are still in prison for cannabis crimes?
DW: IF YOU'RE IN PRISON FOR CANNABIS WE COMING TO GET YOU
For more information about Last Prisoner Project and the other ways we're working to make the industry more equitable, head here.