In what could grow into something much bigger in future cases, potential jurors in Missoula County District Court staged a revolt Thursday, taking the law into their own hands and making it clear they would not convict anybody for having less than 2 grams of marijuana.
The tiny amount of marijuana police found in Touray Cornell’s Missoula, Montana home on April 23 became a big point of contention for some members of the jury panel, reports Gwen Florio of The Missoulian. One juror after another said there was no way they would convict somebody for having 1/16 of an ounce of pot.
One juror wondered aloud why the county was wasting time and money prosecuting the case at all, according to a “flummoxed” Deputy Missoula County Attorney Andrew Paul, who called it “a mutiny,” Florio reports.
When District Judge Dusty Deschamps took a quick poll to find who might agree, of about 27 potential jurors before him, around 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 to address the situation.
Deschamps said that in his nearly 30 years as a prosecutor and judge, he had never seen anything like it.
During the recess, Paul and defense attorney Martin Elinson worked out a plea agreement. On Friday, Cornell entered an Alford plea, meaning he didn’t admit guilt to the possession charge, and walked manacled (see below) but smiling out of the courtroom. However, he did plea guilty to a more serious felony charge of distributing dangerous drugs.
Even defense attorney Elinson called the jury pool’s mutiny “bizarre.”
“Public opinion, as revealed by the reaction of a substantial portion of the members of the jury called to try the charges on December 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,” read the plea memorandum filed by his attorney.
Paul called it “a mutiny.”
“I think that’s outstanding,” said John Masterson, who heads up Montana NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws).
“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.”
The prosecutor, defense attorney, and even the judge all admitted that some of the potential jurors expressed the 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 judge is right, and that’s yet another big reason why the marijuana laws are crumbling, not just in Montana, but all across America. Everyday citizens are tired of convicting people — their friends and neighbors — for something that shouldn’t be any concern of the state to begin with.
The attorneys and 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 of the 2004 approval of a statewide medical marijuana ballot initiative.
All three also took note of the age of the members of the jury pool involved in the revolt. A couple of them looked to be in their 20s, a couple more were in the 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,” Judge Deschamps accurately said.
Is it fair, Deschamps wondered, in such cases to insist upon seating a jury of “hardliners” who object to all drug use, including marijuana?
“I think that poses a real challenge in proceeding,” the judge said. “Are we really seating a jury of their peers if we just leave people on who are militant on the subject?”
While in Cornell’s case the lack of a marijuana conviction doesn’t keep him out of jail — Judge Deschamps sentenced Cornell to 20 years, with 19 suspended, for the felony “drug dealing” charges, to run concurrently with his sentence in a theft case — the importance of the case isn’t lost upon Paul.
The reaction of potential jurors to a marijuana prosecution in this case, Paul said, “is going to be something we’re going to have to consider.”
“Toke of the Town” is on online source for Cannabis news, rumor and humor, Edited by Steve Elliott.