Disparities in prison sentences are a frequent subject of online memes and social media content, especially when one or both of the cases highlighted is regarded by some as a miscarriage of justice, or when racial basis is presented as an explanation for a relatively heavy punishment being imposed on an individual from a racial or ethnic minority group.
We have examined such memes on several occasions in the past. In September 2019, we received multiple inquiries about two more cases: that of Michigan resident Michael Alonzo Thompson, who is African American, and that of Missouri resident Joseph Robert Meili, who is white.
On Aug. 4, the Facebook page First People’s Inter-Indigenous Network of the Americas posted a meme that showed Thompson’s face on the left, along with the following text: “This man sold three pounds of weed in 1994 in Michigan, a state where it is now legal. He’s still in prison to this day.” Under Meili’s face, on the right, the text stated: “This man kidnapped and raped an 11-year-old girl in Missouri. He was sentenced to probation.”
The meme was originally posted in June 2019 by the left-leaning Facebook page The Other 98%. On the whole, it comprised a mixture of accurate and misleading claims.
Michael Alonzo Thompson
The case of “Meeko” Thompson formed one half of a similar meme published previously by The Other 98%. An in-depth examination of his offenses and punishment can be found in our May 2019 fact check of that meme, but the following is a brief outline of the facts.
In 1996, Genesee District Court in Michigan sentenced the then-45-year-old to a combined total of between 40 and 60 years in prison. As of September 2019, Michigan Department of Corrections records show that Thompson was still incarcerated at Muskegon Correctional Facility, meaning The Other 98% meme was accurate in claiming “He is still in prison to this day.”
Thompson was convicted of five charges: possession with intent to deliver marijuana; conspiracy to possess with intent to deliver marijuana; delivery of marijuana; possession of a weapon by a convicted felon; and possession of a weapon during the commission of a felony.
The Other 98% meme was therefore misleading in its description of Thompson’s offenses, saying only that he had “sold three pounds of weed,” and leaving out the fact that he had also been convicted on weapons charges. In fact, the relatively heavy prison sentence he received (the reason why he is “still in prison to this day”) was not related to the three drug charges. For those offenses, Thompson was given a 15-year sentence, and he would have been released in 2011 if he had not also been convicted on weapons charges.
In fact, the statutory maximum penalty for those drug charges was four years in prison and a fine of up to $2,000. Thompson’s sentence was increased to 15 years because he had already been convicted of three drug-related felonies dating back to the 1980s and therefore was charged under Michigan’s “habitual offender” law.
Similarly, his sentence for possession of a weapon by a convicted felon was increased, under the habitual offender law, from five years in prison to between 40 and 60 years in prison, and it is that conviction and sentence alone that accounts for Thompson’s continued incarceration as of 2019.
The two weapons-possession charges were rather controversial. Thompson never had a firearm on his person while he sold three pounds of marijuana to a police informant in 1994, and did not use or reach for a weapon at any time. Rather, he was convicted on the principle of “constructive possession.”
In arresting Thompson, police found several firearms at his home, all of which Thompson’s wife claimed to own. Despite this, the logic of constructive possession meant that, while the police informant was handing him $4,200 in cash for the marijuana, Thompson knew the whereabouts of the firearms and, in principle, he had them at his disposal. In the view of prosecutors and the court, this amounted to constructive possession, and Thompson could therefore be charged and convicted of possession by a felon and possession while committing a felony (the drug deal).
Under Michigan law, Thompson’s status as an habitual offender meant the district court had lawful discretion to impose the 40- to 60-year sentence it ultimately imposed.
Joseph Robert Meili
In March 2019, 22-year-old Meili pleaded guilty to one count of third-degree child molestation, which in Missouri, typically carries a potential penalty of up to seven years in prison. Three months later, Greene County Circuit Court judge Calvin Holden sentenced him to serve five years on probation for his crime. So The Other 98% meme was accurate in stating “he was sentenced to probation.”
Meili was originally charged with two additional offenses: first-degree statutory rape (which carries a potential penalty of between 10 years and life in prison) and child kidnapping (which also carries a potential penalty of between 10 years and life in prison). However, those charges were dropped as part of a plea agreement.
Therefore, it cannot be stated unambiguously that Meili “kidnapped” an 11-year-old girl, as The Other 98% meme claims, because he was not convicted of that particular crime. Furthermore, according to police statements, the girl later told them she had agreed in advance to be picked up from her home by Meili. Notwithstanding her relative immaturity and limited decision-making capacity, the girl does appear to have entered the car voluntarily, in the expectation Meili would drive them away from her family home.
The following facts of the case are taken from Greene County Circuit Court records. They include descriptions of child sexual abuse and alleged statutory rape and might be upsetting to some readers.
Although the evidence against Meili was never tested in a trial, because he pleaded guilty in return for two other charges being dropped, the following is how police officers in Springfield, Missouri, outlined their account of the events that led to Meili’s arrest, taken from a felony probable-cause statement filed in September 2017:
On July 16, 2017, an 11-year-old girl was reported missing from her home in Republic, Missouri. She returned home at 9 p.m. that night and later told police she had been picked up from her house by then 21-year-old Meili, who took her to an apartment in nearby Springfield. During an interview, the girl told police she had begun chatting with Meili in the early hours of July 16, on an app called “Meet Me,” using her mother’s cellphone. According to police, the girl told them that, in her “Meet Me” profile, she had listed her age as 18 years old, and not her true age of 11.
She gave Meili her family’s address and he picked her up by car several hours later. According to the probable-cause statement, the girl’s description of her text conversation with Meili was consistent with messages found on her mother’s cellphone.
The girl told police she fell asleep at the apartment in Springfield and later awoke with “a feeling something sexual had happened.” Meili did not live in the apartment in question but had access to it because he had agreed to dogsit for his friend, who lived there.
The girl spoke to police again in August 2017 and provided further details about her encounter with Meili at the Springfield apartment the previous month. She told them Meili had removed her clothes and inserted his fingers and penis into her vagina. According to police, semen was found on her underwear.
The girl tested positive for the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia in August, having tested negative the day after her meeting with Meili in July. Given that chlamydia is estimated to take at least seven days to incubate, police came to the conclusion that “it is probable [the girl] contracted chlamydia from [Meili].”
Before his arrest, Meili insisted to police that he believed the girl to be 18 years old, as her “Meet Me” profile stated, rather than her true age of 11.
Under Missouri law, statutory rape is defined as “sexual intercourse with another person who is less than fourteen years of age.” According to police, the girl told them that Meili had “put a condom on his penis” and then “put his fingers and penis inside her vagina.” Police later found a condom wrapper in the trash at Meili’s friend’s apartment, which the girl insisted she had no knowledge of.
If true, the act of intercourse the girl alleged would undoubtedly constitute statutory rape on Meili’s part, and The Other 98% meme would be justified in claiming that he had “raped” the girl. However, Meili was never convicted of statutory rape. Rather, the offense to which he admitted (third-degree child molestation) was described by prosecutors as follows:
“… The defendant subjected [the girl], who was then less than 14 years of age, to sexual contact, by placing his hand on [the girl’s] vagina, for the purpose of arousing or gratifying the sexual desire of any person.”
The circumstances surrounding Meili’s plea bargain and his pleading guilty to the lesser charge of child molestation must be weighed against the allegation made by the girl to police (that Meili had indeed inserted his penis and fingers into her vagina), and the fact that the 11-year-old girl tested positive for chlamydia five weeks after the alleged intercourse.
Judge Calvin Holden was not obliged to sentence Meil to only five years’ probation. According to the Huffington Post, prosecutors in the case had asked for Meili to be imprisoned for the maximum term of seven years, but Holden imposed probation, instead. Unless Meili breaches any of the terms and conditions of his probation, he will never go to jail as a consequence of his actions.
The 40- to 60-year prison sentence imposed on Thompson is undoubtedly one that some observers would view as outrageously, even inhumanely, long. The Michigan Court of Appeals itself described it as “quite severe.”
However, The Other 98% meme was misleading to readers because, while it’s true Thompson received that sentence in relation to an incident in which he “sold three pounds of weed,” the 40- to 60-year sentence was not based on that drug offense. Rather, he received that sentence because he was also convicted of “possession of a weapon by a convicted felon,” and his prison term was multiplied because he was already a thrice-convicted felon in the state of Michigan.
It is a matter of subjective opinion as to whether those facts justify the sentence imposed upon Thompson, but they are undoubtedly highly relevant facts that the meme markedly failed to mention.
Similarly, Holden’s decision to ignore the wishes of prosecutors and suspend Meili’s five-year sentence for molesting an 11-year-old girl, when the maximum sentence available was seven years in prison, would undoubtedly strike some readers as unjustifiable and unjust.
However, The Other 98% meme went further and used two specific terms to describe Meili’s actions, alleging that he “kidnapped and raped” the girl. Although Meili was initially charged with kidnapping, that charge was dropped as part of his plea bargain, and notwithstanding her immaturity and young age, the girl does appear to have agreed to meet Meili, and voluntarily left her family home in the car he was driving, according to police statements.
While it cannot be claimed definitively that Meili raped the girl, and a charge of statutory rape was dropped, the meme is on somewhat less shaky factual ground here. Firstly, the girl reportedly told police that Meili had penetrated her vagina with his penis, which would be statutory rape. Secondly, semen was found on the girl’s underwear just one day after her meeting with Meili. Thirdly, the 11-year-old girl tested positive for chlamydia, five weeks after the meeting with Meili, during which she alleged he had sexually penetrated her, and during which he later admitted to having molested her.
While those facts do not amount to definitive proof, and it must be emphasized again that Meili was never convicted of statutory rape, it is understandable that some observers, including those who created The Other 98% meme, might come to the conclusion that he had, in fact, raped her.
On the whole, the meme was comprised of a mixture of accurate and misleading claims.