Gov. Ron DeSantis did not grant Michael Edwards’ request for freedom Wednesday.
Nor did he deny it.
DeSantis said the executive clemency board would take the Fort Myers man’s request to reduce his de-facto life sentence for non-violent drug offenses “under advisement” in the board’s first meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Edwards, now 57, was sentenced in 1994 as a habitual offender to 60 years for selling less than an ounce of cocaine to a former girlfriend turned informant.
His release date is 2040.
Previous coverage: Clemency board could free Fort Myers man facing lengthy sentence for ounce of cocaine
For more than a decade, Edwards and his family have been lobbying for release from a sentence that even former State Attorney Joseph D’Alessandro, in office at the time of Edwards’ conviction, has acknowledged as extreme.
“Some years ago, I came to the realization that his punishment far exceeds his crime,” wrote D’Alessandro in a 2016 letter to then-Gov. Rick Scott.
DeSantis recognized that, too. However, in his comments Wednesday, he noted that Edwards’ crime was not an isolated incident but part of a history.
“You do have an issue here,” DeSantis said. “I think that, it is a significant sentence. I do think there’s a lot of misconduct so I’m going to have to go back and look a little more about some of the other offenses and some of the other conduct.”
The governor noted a recent issue with contraband.
The board did not speak about what the contraband was, but after the hearing Edwards’ sister Mimi Edwards-Beach said her brother told her he was caught with someone else’s cell phone, using it as a calculator. Michael Edwards was not at the hearing.
It was the only disciplinary report he had received since 1999, she said.
In his first few years in prison, Edwards did receive other reports. In an interview several years ago, he told The News-Press he struggled with cocaine addiction into the late ’90s.
Since then, Edwards’ friend Jeff Good noted that Edwards has been sober. “When he was first in there he was angry and depressed and did a lot of stupid stuff, but in the last 20 years or so, he’s realized he’s only going to get out if he cleaned up.”
More of our coverage: Florida man serving 60 years in drug case seeks clemency
In her time to speak before the board, Edwards-Beach shared that her brother had completed 20-some courses related to self-improvement and substance abuse recovery. That he could live with her in Cape Coral and help build her swimming pool business.
And that, under current sentencing guidelines, he would have been home by now.
“We’re asking for your compassion,” she pleaded.
Good told the board about the support for Edwards in Southwest Florida. “I just want to emphasize that Michael has many, many friends and family in the community that are ready, willing and able to support him if he is released.”
An online petition has garnered nearly 10,000 signees.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the lone Democrat in statewide office and on the executive clemency board, highlighted D’Alessandro’s support in the hearing. Fried put Edwards’ case before the board by invoking a rule that allows clemency board members to put a case on an agenda when exceptional merit exists.
Edwards’ mother was at the hearing but too nervous to speak. Earlier this week, Edwards-Beach and her mother had hoped to bring Edwards with them to Southwest Florida. Edwards is in a state prison in the Panhandle. They had packed a fishing shirt and two pairs of shoes.
“I got to the point where I was really thinking he was coming home,” Edwards-Beach said.
Michael Edwards was optimistic, too.
“I’m so excited right now,” wrote Edwards, through prison email before the meeting. “Not so much for me as for my family and close friends, who have been diligently working to secure my freedom. … If it weren’t for my family and friends, I would never have made it this far.”
The family expects to hear a decision in a few weeks. Edwards-Beach is not letting the lack of one Wednesday douse the hope that had flared in their hearts.
“He did not say you’re denied.”
Reporter Devan Patel contributed to this report.
Janine Zeitlin is an enterprise reporter in Southwest Florida. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JanineZeitlin. Support local journalism by subscribing.
In case you missed it: Fort Myers man’s hopes of commutation will have to wait as state postpones clemency board meeting in response to COVID-19
More: Commission on Offender Review recommends commutation of Michael Edward’s prison sentence