In a Sept. 4, 2015 file photo, Richard Wershe sits in a courtroom at Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in Detroit. (David Coates / AP)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Clemency Board are considering early prison release for a man known as "White Boy Rick," once one of the FBI’s youngest informants and the subject of a recent Hollywood movie.
The board on Wednesday heard the case of Richard Wershe Jr., 49, who’s imprisoned in Florida for his role in a large interstate car theft ring operated while he was already in prison. At age 14, Wershe was an FBI informant in Detroit who helped convict a major cocaine trafficking ring but eventually got caught selling drugs himself.
His story was the basis of the 2018 film "White Boy Rick" starred Matthew McConaughey, with Richie Merritt in the title role.
At the hearing, two retired FBI agents told the board Wershe deserves early release because of all he did for the government, including assistance on several public corruption cases while behind bars. His current release date is Oct. 26, 2020, from the Putnam Correctional Institution in Florida.
The board did not immediately issue a decision, although its staff recommended early release.
"I believe a great injustice to Richard Wershe has been done by the government," said ex-agent Herman Groman, who said Wershe infiltrated a violent Detroit drug gang and helped prosecutors convict 20 people in the 1980s. "He has never been recognized because of this."
Added former agent Gregg Schwartz: "He has never lied to me about anything. I fully recommend for clemency. He’s contributed greatly to law enforcement."
DeSantis, a Republican chairing his first clemency hearing since taking office, appeared to express skepticism. The governor noted that Wershe got involved in a car theft ring involving some 150 stolen vehicles while behind bars serving his drug sentence.
"He had been helping you guys and then turned around and engaged in additional criminal conduct," DeSantis said.
"You need to look at the totality of everything he has done over 32 years," Schwartz replied.
Attorney General Ashley Moody, a former judge and prosecutor, told the agents it "speaks volumes" that they showed up for Wershe but did not indicate if she supports early prison release.
DeSantis told reporters before the board meeting that he has an open mind on all clemency cases.
"You know, I want there to be a rough equality of justice here. Not all cases are exactly the same," the governor said. "I do believe in redemption and that does play a role."
In Detroit, Wershe became a youthful FBI informant after agents began investigating his father for illegally selling guns. After infiltrating the drug gang and assisting in numerous convictions, Wershe was arrested with a large amount of drugs himself and eventually was sentenced to life in prison in Michigan.
He was released on parole in 2017 and then moved to the Florida prison to serve his five-year racketeering sentence in the car theft ring.
Attorney Jeff Kottkamp, a former Florida lieutenant governor who represents Wershe, said he’s optimistic that Wershe will win his release.
"I think it’s fair to say Mr. Wershe has paid his debt to society and then some," Kottkamp said. "I believe if given a second chance, Mr. Wershe will be a model citizen."