Friday, December 24, 2010

Missoula District Court: Jury pool in marijuana case stages ‘mutiny’

A funny thing happened on the way to a trial in Missoula County District Court last week.
Jurors – well, potential jurors – staged a revolt.
They took the law into their own hands, as it were, and made it clear they weren’t about to convict anybody for having a couple of buds of marijuana. Never mind that the defendant in question also faced a felony charge of criminal distribution of dangerous drugs.
The tiny amount of marijuana police found while searching Touray Cornell’s home on April 23 became a huge issue for some members of the jury panel.
No, they said, one after the other. No way would they convict somebody for having a 16th of an ounce.
In fact, one juror wondered why the county was wasting time and money prosecuting the case at all, said a flummoxed Deputy Missoula County Attorney Andrew Paul.
District Judge Dusty Deschamps took a quick poll as to who might agree. Of the 27 potential jurors before him, maybe five raised their hands. A couple of others had already been excused because of their philosophical objections.
“I thought, ‘Geez, I don’t know if we can seat a jury,’ ” said Deschamps, who called a recess.
And he didn’t.
During the recess, Paul and defense attorney Martin Elison worked out a plea agreement. That was on Thursday.
On Friday, Cornell entered an Alford plea, in which he didn’t admit guilt. He briefly held his infant daughter in his manacled hands, and walked smiling out of the courtroom.
“Public opinion, as revealed by the reaction of a substantial portion of the members of the jury called to try the charges on Dec. 16, 2010, is not supportive of the state’s marijuana law and appeared to prevent any conviction from being obtained simply because an unbiased jury did not appear available under any circumstances,” according to the plea memorandum filed by his attorney.
“A mutiny,” said Paul.
“Bizarre,” the defense attorney called it.
In his nearly 30 years as a prosecutor and judge, Deschamps said he’s never seen anything like it.
“I think that’s outstanding,” John Masterson, who heads Montana NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), said when told of the incident. “The American populace over the last 10 years or so has begun to believe in a majority that assigning criminal penalties for the personal possession of marijuana is an unjust and a stupid use of government resources.”
Masterson is hardly an unbiased source.
On the other hand, prosecutor, defense attorney and judge all took note that some of the potential jurors expressed that same opinion.
“I think it’s going to become increasingly difficult to seat a jury in marijuana cases, at least the ones involving a small amount,” Deschamps said.
The attorneys and the judge all noted Missoula County’s approval in 2006 of Initiative 2, which required law enforcement to treat marijuana crimes as their lowest priority – and also of the 2004 approval of a statewide medical marijuana ballot initiative.
And all three noticed the age of the members of the jury pool who objected. A couple looked to be in their 20s. A couple in their 40s. But one of the most vocal was in her 60s.
“It’s kind of a reflection of society as a whole on the issue,” said Deschamps.
Which begs a question, he said.
Given the fact that marijuana use became widespread in the 1960s, most of those early users are now in late middle age and fast approaching elderly.
Is it fair, Deschamps wondered, in such cases to insist upon impaneling a jury of “hardliners” who object to all drug use, including marijuana?
“I think that poses a real challenge in proceeding,” he said. “Are we really seating a jury of their peers if we just leave people on who are militant on the subject?”
Although the potential jurors in the Cornell case quickly focused on the small amount of marijuana involved, the original allegations were more serious – that Cornell was dealing; hence, a felony charge of criminal distribution of dangerous drugs.
Because the case never went to trial, members of the jury pool didn’t know that Cornell’s neighbors had complained to police that he was dealing from his South 10th Street West four-plex, according to an affidavit in the case. After one neighbor reported witnessing an alleged transaction between Cornell and two people in a vehicle, marijuana was found in the vehicle in question.
The driver and passenger said they’d bought it from Cornell, the affidavit said. A subsequent search of his home turned up some burnt marijuana cigarettes, a pipe and some residue, as well as a shoulder holster for a handgun and 9mm ammunition. As a convicted felon, Cornell was prohibited from having firearms, the affidavit noted.
Cornell admitted distributing small amounts of marijuana and “referred to himself as a person who connected other dealers with customers,” it said. “He claimed his payment for arranging deals was usually a small amount of marijuana for himself.”
Potential jurors also couldn’t know about Cornell’s criminal history, which included eight felonies, most of them in and around Chicago several years ago. According to papers filed in connection with the plea agreement, Cornell said he moved to Missoula to “escape the criminal lifestyle he was leading,” but he’s had a number of brushes with the law here.
Those include misdemeanor convictions for driving while under the influence and driving with a suspended license, and a felony conviction in August of conspiracy to commit theft, involving an alleged plot last year to stage a theft at a business where a friend worked, the papers said. He was out on bail in that case when the drug charges were filed.
In sentencing him Friday, Deschamps referred to him as “an eight-time loser” and said, “I’m not convinced in any way that you don’t present an ongoing threat to the community.”
Deschamps also pronounced himself “appalled” at Cornell’s personal life, saying: “You’ve got no education, you’ve got no skills. Your life’s work seems to be going out and impregnating women and not supporting your children.”
The mother of one of those children, a 3-month-old named Joy who slept through Friday’s sentencing, was in the courtroom for Friday’s sentencing. Cornell sought and received permission to hug his daughter before heading back to jail.
Deschamps sentenced Cornell to 20 years, with 19 suspended, under Department of Corrections supervision, to run concurrently with his sentence in the theft case. He’ll get credit for the 200 days he’s already served. The judge also ordered Cornell to get a GED degree upon his release.
“Instead of being a lazy bum, you need to get an education so you can get a decent law-abiding job and start supporting your family,” he said.
Normally, Paul said after the sentencing, a case involving such a small amount of marijuana wouldn’t have gone this far through the court system except for the felony charge involved.
But the small detail in this case may end up being a big game-changer in future cases.
The reaction of potential jurors in this case, Paul said, “is going to be something we’re going to have to consider.”

via Billings Gazette

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Hemp Car To Make Record 10,000-mile Trip

A hemp-fueled car scheduled to begin a record-breaking 10,000-mile trip around North America July 4 debuted Thursday in Washington at a conference devoted primarily to legalizing marijuana.

The car is a white, modified 1983 Mercedes diesel station wagon festooned with colorful hemp-related logos and the Virginia license plate "HEMPCAR." It is the creation of Grayson and Kellie Sigler, who plan to use roughly 400 gallons of hemp biodiesel during their trip. The trip will take the Siglers through 40 cities over three months, to the West Coast and then back east through Canada.

The drive should set a world distance record for a vehicle using hemp for fuel. Hemp oil converts into a biodiesel fuel fairly simply once mixed with caustic lye dissolved in methanol, a technique which makes the oil less viscous and more combustible.

"Hemp oil can be burned directly, but this is much cleaner," explained environmental defense attorney Don Wirtshafter, proprietor of the Ohio Hempery, the Athens,Ohio-based company providing the oil. "You get fuel and glycerine from the process, and the glycerine can be used to make soap or candles. We like to use potassium hydroxide as the caustic agent, because it results in a beautiful fertilizer."

Biodiesels can be made from any vegetable oil or animal fat and burn in any unmodified diesel engine. The only modification made to the hemp car was the replacement of rubber hoses with synthetic rubber tubes -- biodiesels erode rubber.

"Hemp oil has the same energy as diesel," Wirtshafter said. "Whatever your car does on diesel, it'll do on hemp. It's even possible to process hemp for a gasoline engine, but it's more complex."

When asked why one should use hemp for fuel, Wirtshafter responded, "What humanity is doing on a massive scale right now is pulling carbon out of the ground in the form of fossil fuels and spewing it out as carbon dioxide gas, adding to global warming. Biofuels, hemp included, give us the chance to grow our fuel, thereby living off the energy from the sun rather than spending our 'savings bank' of hydrocarbons. At the same time, like all plants, hemp would absorb carbon dioxide as a natural life process."

Hemp is legal in some 30 countries, including all of Europe, Canada and China. As a crop, its fiber yields textiles such as paper, cloth and rope, while its oil is used for paint, varnish, lubricants and highly nutritious food. Cultivating hemp has been illegal in the United States since 1937, because marijuana is made from hemp's flowers, buds and leaves. This ban was briefly suspended during World War II, when the United States could not import hemp fiber from the Far East for use in rope.

Hemp legalization advocates argue that the plant is ideal for biofuel use. "It yields about four times more seed oil than soybeans," Greyson Sigler said. "It grows widely in all climates with little fertilizer or pesticides needed than most crops. It's cheap, drought-resistant and very easy to cultivate. Hemp is, in my opinion, the world's most prodigious renewable resource. It could help California out with its power problems and keep the U.S. from drilling for oil in Alaska."

Sigler added that biodiesel releases 80 percent less emissions on average than gas.

"There are no sulfur byproducts, although there are slightly increased nitrogen oxide emission, most of which can be tuned out," he said. Sulfur and nitrogen oxides are pollutants and common byproducts of combustion.

While the conference at which the hemp car debuted was more focused on legalizing marijuana for responsible adult recreational use, the meeting's director, Allen St. Pierre, stressed the hemp legalization debate should expand to include the plant's industrial applications.

"It's just so hard to get beyond the giggle, the public trivialization of this," said St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "We call it the 'rope vs. dope debate.'"

"But I have great faith that the pragmatism of big oil companies will move legalization forward," he added. "You'll start to see a cultural eraser -- it's not the hippies in the park that are asking for it to be legal, but people who will note at least six or seven of the founding fathers were prolific hemp growers, including Jefferson and Washington."

The hemp oil used for the record-setting trip comes from Canada. Though hemp oil currently costs some $50 per gallon, Wirtshafter hopes legalization could drive the cost down in the United States to as low as pennies per gallon. "We're not going to be economical until we're able to produce hemp oil without our handcuffs on," he said.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws gave $1,000 to subsidize the hemp car and may sponsor more funds in the coming months. "We were very impressed. We thought they were very well-versed and serious-minded. They weren't full of hyperbole, and they weren't naïve -- they knew this was going to be difficult."

The Sigler's car is not the first hemp-fueled vehicle. In fact, Gatewood Galbraith, who ran for governor of Kentucky in 1991 on a pro-hemp platform, drove around in a retrofitted Mercedes Benz during his election campaign.

The Siglers expect to get a warm reception during their trip. "Most people are really happy about it," Grayson Sigler said. "We got truckers blowing their horns and people flashing their lights on the way here. We even ran into some police officers who think it's fun."

St. Pierre noted that the only distinctive side effect bystanders may experience from the car is "a funky odor. Most people who are familiar with the smell of burning seeds of marijuana will sniff and say, 'Hey, it's an odd smell.'"