By Terrie Best / San Diego Americans for Safe Access /March 18, 2014
Dennis and Deborah Little were vindicated in Vista court on March 17th, each of one count of possession for sale of marijuana and one of cultivation. The happy moment was shared with several jurors who lingered and hugged the traumatized couple, their attorneys and supporters in the halls outside Judge Munroy’s courtroom.
The Little trial began in earnest when a jury was finally seated, on March 11, last week. It took quite some time for the judge to find and dismiss those potential jurors who said they would be biased – most of those dismissed directed bias toward prosecutions and one hopes it can’t be long before San Diego District Attorney stops bringing sick patients like the Littles to court.
Last week the defense rested, closing arguments and jury instructions for the 12 jurors completed late Thursday. On Friday we waited while from the deliberation room the jury asked one question and then apparently not satisfied with the answer, asked it in a different way. The question was “is it legal to have marijuana with an expired doctor recommendation?” We later found out – in a post-verdict phone call with Juror One – that at the time the question was asked the jury panel had already voted and exonerated the Little’s on the possession for sale charge and were split heavily toward Guilty on the cultivation charge. The judge’s answer to their question on Friday read “Having an expired recommendation does not negate the Compassionate Use Act defense.” This answer pushed three jurors over to a Not Guilty vote but then a typo on the couples’ doctors recommendations swayed three votes back to nine Guilty and that was how they ended the day Friday.
When we arrived at court Monday morning nobody could know the jury had already reached one Not Guilty verdict. They came to this verdict rather quickly according to Juror One but were still deadlocked leaning toward Guilty on the cultivation charge. Then something amazing happened, over the weekend three jurors changed their minds and did so very strongly. The jury was again deadlocked but now in a nine Not Guilty to three Guilty split.
They sent a note saying they were stuck and the judge had them come back in to his courtroom.
We learned the fate of the Littles as Judge Munroy read first Deborah and then Dennis’ Not Guilty verdicts and questioned the jury foreman on the deadlock as to the cultivation charge. When he learned the vote split, the judge used CA Code 1385 to dismiss the cultivation charges against the Littles in the furtherance of justice.
Juror One, a delightful young lady who liked her jury mates, spent nearly two hours on the phone with me last night. This was an honor as one of the highlights of following these cases is post-verdict insights from the jury. Number One said the most uncomfortable part of deliberations was late Friday’s discussion in the room on the difference between a doctor’s
prescription which expires and a doctor’s recommendation such as “take two aspirin and call me in the morning” which doesn’t. Another sticking point was the confusion over whether the panel should consider federal law in the case.
Juror One’s perspective on cannabis was unbiased, she has never used it but had a brother who had. As the testimony unfolded for her she told me she noticed the prosecution didn’t really have a case for sales, she felt Brock Arstill the Deputy DA, focused on discrediting the defense case rather than proving his own and the jury found no evidence of sales. Juror One was angered about the raid on the Littles property in Ramona and couldn’t understand why the police don’t use the knock and talk method as Lance Rogers, attorney for Dennis, pointed out in his questions. And because she had a farming background, Number One, used it as a framework to understand plant counts and yields much better than many of her fellow jurors could.
In our conversation, Juror One said she was convinced Deputy Sheriff Matt Stevens rode by in his helicopter, spotted some plants, got excited and then when it turned out he was wrong about the number of plants he wouldn’t let it go. I told her she was mostly right but that the jury had not been allowed to hear Stevens claimed in his report the Little’s had 640 pounds and they (the DEA) destroyed it (likely to cover up the first lie). This caused an outburst from the young woman, who said “Matt Stevens is a frickin’ ass and you can write that.” This juror felt strongly about having a post-verdict voice and she had already read my courtroom updates by the time we spoke. I didn’t feel bad about repeating the insult, it was the only one like it and it could be true. Yes, it’s probably true.
Juror One reported that all jurors found Kim Twolan, the defense expert on medical cannabis yields, very credible. They did not like Brock Arstill’s attempts to badger her, it was incongruent with how the defense behaved to the prosecution’s witnesses and it was discussed at length in the jury deliberation room. Juror One said she just found the defendants more credible. When Dennis who suffers from arthritis and neuropathy and Deborah who has HIV/AIDS and cervical cancer took the stand she found their versions of the statements Matt Stevens claimed they made more believable. It was an “aha” moment for her and the truth came a little clearer.
I am quite bias but my overall impression of Juror One was I’d like to send her flowers. She completely got everything about this case, all the nuance of law and she was able to advocate for the Not Guilty voters in the jury room. She says she had help and I hope I get to speak to those folks too.
Juror One wants to help with the medical cannabis cause. She offered to stay in touch and I invited her to attend the San Diego Americans for Safe Access April meeting on the 8th. She said she would as long as she “can have one of those green ribbons.”
Dennis and Deborah were legally cultivating medical cannabis for their own personal use. On October 18, 2012 members of Team 9 of the DEA’s Narcotics Task Force raided the Little’s home and property early in the morning.
Rather than the large commercial growing operation they expected to find, the DEA agents found a garden of 29 cannabis plants. Deborah has suffered from HIV/AIDS for 20 years, has fought cancer, and has suffered from a number of other debilitating illnesses. Dennis has suffered from neuropathy and depression for years. The Littles began using medical cannabis as a last resort to treat their pain, particularly for Deborah who had suffered so gravely from the cocktail of medications she had to use to treat her HIV.
After the DEA removed the Littles’ cannabis garden and confiscated all of their medicine, they proceeded to weigh the evidence and destroy almost all of it at an undisclosed location. The Littles were then charged with possession for sale and cultivation of cannabis. At the preliminary hearing, Deputy Matt Stevens stated that, in total, he seized more than 640 pounds.
The Littles have never had the opportunity to test the DEA’s incredible assertions by analyzing and testing the evidence themselves to demonstrate that, in fact, they were cultivating an amount reasonably necessary for their medical needs.
A sanction was put in place by the trial judge in the case, Richard Munroy. Because of the DEA’s destruction of plant evidence his honor restricted the prosecution from perpetrating the fallacy of the unsubstantiated weight of 640 pounds. The prosecution will face a “fashioned remedy” and be limited to testimony of 118 pounds, a fictitious amount to level the playing field in the face of the DEA fallacy.
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Terrie Best is San Diego Americans for Safe Access Court Support Coordinator.