Pot Backer Convicted of Tainting Jury
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Author: Denny Walsh -- Bee Staff Writer
Published: Tuesday, December 17, 2002
Copyright: 2002 The Sacramento Bee
Contact: [email protected]
The Oakland cannabis co-op director handed out a flier at a marijuana grower's trial.
A leader in California's medical marijuana movement was convicted in Sacramento federal court Monday of attempting to influence the outcome of a fellow pot advocate's trial.
Jeff Jones, who has gained national notoriety as executive director of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, was found guilty by a magistrate judge of passing out a flier in front of Sacramento's federal courthouse designed to sway prospective jurors for the trial of Bryan Epis.
Jones' non-jury trial came to an abrupt end in the early afternoon. Prosecutor Christopher Hagan rested, and defense attorney Michael Bigelow moved for a dismissal, arguing that the government's evidence did not support the charge and that Jones has been unfairly singled out.
In denying the motion, U.S. Magistrate Judge Peter A. Nowinski rejected a free-speech argument. He also declared that the contents of the sheet Jones handed to people entering the courthouse on the June morning Epis' trial was to begin "was clearly an attempt to influence jurors."
Recalling Bigelow's argument that the flier's content was purely "informational," Nowinski said that "it is too much information for an improper purpose."
At that point, Bigelow decided to forgo the presentation of any evidence, and both attorneys waived closing arguments.
"I find the defendant guilty as charged," Nowinski then said. Sentencing was scheduled for Feb. 27.
Hagan called a number of prospective jurors who testified that Jones handed the sheet to them in the courtyard of the building at 501 I St. as they approached the front door. He also played a videotape from a surveillance camera showing Jones' encounters with several people.
Some witnesses recalled Jones urging them to "Vote your conscience"; telling them, "I have a friend on trial for growing medical marijuana"; or saying, "The feds haven't caught up with state law" allowing medicinal use.
Bigelow said there was no evidence his client "didn't have a First Amendment right to be there" and that there were others distributing and displaying material in support of medical marijuana. He also said the flier Jones was distributing "had been disseminated over the Internet and available to the entire world for months."
"Why we are singling out one individual for passing it out is, to me, incomprehensible," Bigelow said.
Nowinski told him there are time-and-place restrictions on First Amendment rights in this instance. The judge said that the presence of other demonstrators and availability of other material do not excuse his client.
Jones, 38, faces a maximum of six months in prison and a $5,000 fine on the misdemeanor conviction. Nowinski also could impose restitution equal to what it cost the government when U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. disqualified the entire original group of 42 prospective jurors and convened a second panel.
The second group and those ultimately selected to serve on the Epis jury were bused each day between the basement of the courthouse and a distant location to avoid demonstrators at the building.
Jones and his Oakland club took the fight for medical marijuana to the U.S. Supreme Court last year but lost. The court ruled that medical necessity offers no defense to federal prosecution.
Epis, the moving force behind a cannabis buyers club in Chico, was found guilty in July of growing marijuana. Damrell sentenced him to 10 years in prison. The conviction has been appealed.
The 35-year-old Epis financed the Chico club after voters approved California's 1996 initiative allowing the use of doctor-recommended marijuana for serious illness and chronic pain. His prosecution was the first federal criminal case involving such an organization to reach a jury.
After being instructed by Damrell that medical necessity is not a defense, the jury took less than four hours to decide Epis' fate.
The case became a rallying point for medical-marijuana proponents nationwide, who view it as the ultimate injustice to come from the chasm between state and federal law.
The sheet handed out by Jones had been downloaded from Epis' Web site and was Epis' written rendition of the events leading to his trial. It was posted on the Internet early this year.
A notice of the June 24 trial date was added in the spring, urging his supporters to attend and asking, "Please be respectful if you come in the courtroom, and while protesting."
Damrell and Assistant U.S. Attorney Samuel Wong suggested that Epis was behind the dissemination of the material and threatened him with a separate prosecution for contempt. That has never materialized, but Wong and federal drug agents are trying to tie Epis to the incident.
On that day, demonstrators displayed pro-medical-pot placards and handed out varied material, including a "jury nullification" pamphlet saying that judges rarely tell jurors of their right "to judge the law itself and vote on the verdict according to conscience."
About the Writer
The Bee's Denny Walsh can be reached at (916) 321-1189 or [email protected]
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