Two Kentucky men have murder charges dismissed in ‘satanic’ killing

by Associated Press

BRANDENBURG, Ky. — A Kentucky judge dismissed murder charges Monday against two men for a 1990s killing that authorities at the time described as “satanic.”

Garr Keith Hardin and Jeffrey Dewayne Clark had their convictions in Meade County vacated in 2016 based on DNA testing and evidence of police misconduct. They were released from prison in August of that year after serving 21 years.

Hardin and Clark were convicted in 1995 of killing 19-year-old Rhonda Sue Warford, based in part on the prosecution’s contention that a hair found on her body was a match to Hardin. They were sentenced to life in prison.

On Monday, Meade County Circuit Judge Bruce Butler dismissed the 1992 murder indictments against the men at the urging of the state attorney general’s office.

“The struggle for justice has been long and painful for Mr. Hardin and Mr. Clark, who served more than 20 years and whom the Commonwealth twice threatened with the death penalty for a crime they did not commit,” said Seema Saifee, a staff attorney with The Innocence Project. The group is representing Hardin.

The Innocence Project fought for years to have the evidence tested for DNA, and the Kentucky Supreme Court granted the request in 2013. The testing revealed the hair didn’t come from Hardin.

Judge Butler overturned their conviction in 2016, finding it “based on suppositions that we now know to be fundamentally false.”

The Kentucky Attorney General’s office, which took over the case last year, has pledged to re-investigate Warford’s killing.

Image:

Jeffrey Clark, third from left, and Garr Keith Hardin, second from right, spent 21 years in prison for a 1992 murder before their convictions were overturned. Natalia Martinez / WAVE 3 News

At Hardin and Clark’s murder trial in 1995, prosecutors claimed they committed the killings as part of a satanic sacrifice, according to a release Monday from The Innocence Project.

Part of the evidence was a bloody cloth and broken glass recovered from Hardin’s home that prosecutors said was stained during an animal sacrifice. They said the glass was a “chalice” from which Hardin drank the blood of animals.

Hardin testified at trial that the blood on the cloth was his own, caused by cutting himself on the glass.

A police detective who testified at the trial said Hardin told him that he killed animals as a form of satanic ritual and “got tired of looking at animals and began to want to do human sacrifices.” Hardin denied making those statements.

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40 YEARS FOR MARIJUANA IS NOT JUSTICE

GRANT CLEMENCY TO OUR SON EDWIN RUBIS – 40 YEARS FOR MARIJUANA IS NOT JUSTICE

Untitled

Jeremy Malone Huntsville, AL

Our son, Edwin Rubis, is serving a federal sentence of 40 years for a non-violent marijuana offense. [www.marijuanaliferproject.org/federal-prisoner-edwin-rubis-is-serving-life-for-marijuana/
At age 29, our son, while battling drug addiction, associated himself with drug couriers, and was charged with conspiracy to distribute marijuana. After his arrest, his court-appointed attorney advised him, along with us, that he needed to provide information on others in the drug trade. Edwin could not provide such information. Therefore, he was quickly deemed “uncooperative”, and the judge gave him a harsh sentence – 40 years.

Edwin has been away from us for the last 19 years.

During the course of time, we have adamantly petitioned, and at times cried, for his early release, at every level of the court system. Sadly to say, we continue to struggle, missing him, with no positive resolution to obtain his freedom. Edwin’s children need him. We need him. Our son is not a terrorist, a rapist, a gang member, nor a violent individual to continually be kept in prison for decades for distributing marijuana. While imprisoned, Edwin has taken diligent steps to better himself. He has achieved numerous rehabilitation programs from the psychology and religious departments. He has graduated from college with a degree in Religious Education; and he is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Counseling and Therapist Certification. In addition, he serves as a mentor to others, under the supervision of the head chaplain. He is also working as a G.E.D. and E.S.L. tutor in the education department, at his present institution of confinement, helping others further their education. In addition, Edwin also finished a 2 year dental apprenticeship from The Department of Labor, and worked as a dental assistant for the last 7 years in the medical department.
We love our son, [uncle, father, and brother]. We wish for him to receive another chance at life. But our dream for him to be reunited with us, can not be accomplished without your full support.

Please help us obtain our son’s freedom by signing this petition urging President Donald Trump to grant our son clemency or a pardon.

Edwin is a changed man. He has been fully rehabilitated and deserves a second chance at life.

Sincerely, Maria Roque – and – Family.

PLEASE CONTINUE READING AND SIGN THE PETITION TO FREE THIS MAN NOW!

Kentucky is paying imprisoned people an average of just 9 cents an hour for labor …

Free Kentucky prisoners from toiling for slave wages

By Cameron Lopez

December 01, 2017 05:30 PM

Image result for kentucky prison labor

We have to be blunt about topics that seem too shocking to be true.

Kentucky is paying imprisoned people an average of just 9 cents an hour for labor. These inmates are forced to work for the state. The rate Kentucky is paying them is 1/90th the rate of the minimum wage.

Slavery is labor that is coerced and inadequately rewarded, Kentucky jail labor fits both of those criteria. Slavery is happening in Kentucky.

This doesn’t seem like it should be legal in the United States, but when the U.S. was outlawing slave labor after the Civil War they amended the Constitution. The 13th Amendment says, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” That second part of the sentence, “except as a punishment for crime,” allows the prison system to use unpaid labor as long as the person has been convicted. This also allows the justice system to force a person to work even if they don’t want to.

Just because slavery can be legal doesn’t necessarily mean it is happening. Unfortunately for Kentuckians, it is happening. A lot. The 2016 Annual Report by the Department of Corrections says that inmates worked in excess of 6.2 million hours and were paid $540,115. If we value their labor at minimum wage, they produced $45.4 million worth of labor and got paid less than 2 percent of what they deserve.

Some people may have harsh views of criminals, thinking, “well they shouldn’t have done the crime if they didn’t want to face punishment.” Let’s examine this.

We see somebody on TV accused of heinous crimes and think that’s every criminal. But the majority of the state’s prison population — 56 percent, according to the Kentucky Department of Corrections — committed crimes that weren’t violent or sex crimes.

To go even further, America’s, and subsequently Kentucky’s, set of laws that we’re supposed to abide by is so complicated that nobody knows how many criminal laws there are in the U.S. Not “nobody” in the metaphorical sense, literally nobody: no lawyer, no politician, no Supreme Court Justice knows how many laws there are that can be violated criminally.

You could be unknowingly violating the law right now. In fact, you probably are. Civil liberties advocate Harvey Silverglate says the average U.S. citizen commits three felonies a day. So, if you’re stressed today, here’s just a friendly reminder: you or any of your family members could be incarcerated on any day.

The solution to this is actual criminal justice reform and compassion for those incarcerated.

It is not right that people are working for 9 cents an hour, less than a dollar a day. We need to pay them minimum wage, or stop forced inmate labor. It is slavery.

We need criminal law reform so that not everybody is committing multiple felonies a day living their everyday lives. Our goal should be to keep people out of jails, not put more in jails because that next person could be you.

Cameron Lopez is an economics student at the University of Kentucky.

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RELATED…

Union calls for no-confidence vote on Louisville jail chief

(backdating the news…this is a month old – but important!)

Image result for louisville kentucky jail

Phillip M. Bailey , @phillipmbailey Published 10:52 p.m. ET April 25, 2017

Mayor Greg Fischer and Metro Corrections Director Mark Bolton emphasized working with corrections staff to improve conditions at jail facilities on Wednesday afternoon, a day after rank-and-file officers moved to hold a no-confidence vote on Bolton’s leadership.

Chris Poynter, a spokesman for Fischer, said the “mayor appreciates the union’s input. Now, let’s move on to doing the difficult work at Metro Corrections and working to improve every day.”

But in a statement to the Courier-Journal late Tuesday after the correction workers’ union voted to pursue the no-confidence vote, union President Tracy Dotson said Bolton is “misrepresenting the dangerous overcrowding issue at the jail” to city officials and the media.

Dotson, whose union includes more than 500 sworn officers, said their issues with Bolton “are ridiculously many,” including workplace security, health and safety.

Bolton spokesman Steve Durham said the corrections department has seen unprecedented growth of the inmate population, due in large part to a logjam of prisoners awaiting transfer to state facilities. In February,  for instance, jail officials said the population across the department’s three facilities topped 2,300 despite a designed capacity of 1,793 beds.

“The Metro Corrections jail facilities do not control who is admitted or released,” Durham said. “We will continue to work with our criminal justice partners both locally and at state levels to develop solutions that promote and enhance public safety and ensure a quality work environment for our staff.”

Dotson reiterated officers’ previous complaints, including cameras and intercoms in key areas that do not work; a refusal to meet with FOP leadership on employee issues; failure to fill job vacancies; disintegration of sworn staff training; and alleged retaliation and harassment of FOP members and leadership for participating in union activity.

Dotson said the vote on Bolton will take place in a couple of weeks.

Bolton’s leadership has been under increasing scrutiny, including a pending audit of the jail’s overcrowding issues and taxpayer costs, and the vote will be the second regarding a top public safety official in the city in recent months. In December, less than 2 percent of police FOP members said in a vote that they had confidence in police Chief Steve Conrad’s leadership.

Bolton’s office said he is committed to being transparent in his response to public safety challenges under the jail’s direct control.  Durham said there are 22 recruits in the department’s current academy class, for instance.

Local jail officials also said state Corrections Commissioner Rodney Ballard has sent the city a letter on strategies to free up space in the jail and on plans to add capacity at facilities across the state, although they did not share those details.

“Commissioner Ballard expressed that these measures will significantly improve problems with capacity at Metro Corrections,” Durham said. “We certainly hold Commissioner Ballard to his word.”

Besides the union, Bolton also has been in a battle with District Court Judge Stephanie Pearce Burke, who filed a contempt order in January asking him and his top brass to explain incidents in which she alleged inmates were improperly held. Two former Louisville inmates have filed a federal lawsuit alleging that they and hundreds of others were detained in violation of their constitutional rights.

The Jefferson County Attorney’s Office has said most of Burke’s claims of noncompliance with court orders are incorrect.

Reporter Phillip M. Bailey can be reached at 502-582-4475 or [email protected].

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Started by a group of Kentucky Fried Chicken investors in the early 1980s, CCA quickly grew into the largest private prison operator in the world.

Colorado’s For-Profit Prisons a Bad Bet, Says Ex-Employee Turned Author

Thursday, May 18, 2017 at 8:26 a.m.

By Alan Prendergast

After it was taken over by a private-prison operator in 1996, the Bent County Correctional Facility soon doubled its capacity — and then doubled it again, to more than 1,400 inmates.

Sue Binder’s quarrel with the private-prison giant Corrections Corporation of America began shortly after she started to work at one of CCA’s cut-rate hoosegows in southeastern Colorado. It continued for thirteen years, right up until Binder resigned in 2015 from her job as a mental-health coordinator at the Bent County Correctional Facility — and got shorted on her last paycheck in a dispute over medical leave.

Started by a group of Kentucky Fried Chicken investors in the early 1980s, CCA quickly grew into the largest private prison operator in the world. But it’s also been dogged by bad press about poorly trained staff, inadequate medical care, outbursts of violence and riots, and studies that indicate turning to the private sector to manage inmate populations doesn’t really save money. The company recently changed its name to CoreCivic as part of a rebranding effort.

But whatever it calls itself now, it’s safe to say that working for CCA made an indelible impression on Binder, who became convinced that management at the Bent County lockup was more interested in keeping the place as full —and profitable — as possible than in helping inmates prepare for release or treating staff fairly. She decided to write a book that would encompass not just her experiences, but how the private corrections industry works. The result is Bodies in Beds: Why Business Should Stay Out of Prisons (Algora).

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“The longer I was there, especially the last four or five years, the more I became disillusioned,” says Binder, who now works at a community mental-health center in Lamar. “I can’t say I was burned out, but I was becoming more aware of what was happening behind the scenes at the company I worked for. At first I thought I would just do my personal story, but then I began researching more and more. It kind of ballooned on me.”

Part memoir, part overview, Bodies in Beds offers unsettling glimpses into what it’s like to work at a private prison — not just as a turnkey, but as someone who’s supposed to offer actual services to inmates. For a while, Binder managed to rationalize her position to herself, figuring that maybe she could make a difference to some of the mentally ill prisoners she saw. But as CCA’s cost-containment strategies kept multiplying the duties and thinning the staff, Binder found herself not only having to screen every new inmate, but divide with just one other mental-health specialist a caseload of more than 400 inmates diagnosed with some degree of mental illness. At the same time, she was asked to meticulously document every action she took — a request that was supposed to help her get more staff, but was actually used to justify the status quo. On a good day, she was lucky to spend a few minutes each with maybe ten or twelve inmates between mounds of paperwork.

“I felt like I’m not helping these guys very much,” she says. “We were pushing these inmates through like cattle. What could have been thirty or forty minutes with them, trying to help them, I saw that not happening. Some of them have opportunities and should be out of prison — but we need to give them help.”

After a 2004 riot at CCA’s badly understaffed Crowley County Correctional Facility, the Colorado Department of Corrections stepped up its monitoring of private-prison operators. But whistleblowers like Binder are not all that numerous; most staffers at the company’s facilities live in remote areas, with few economic opportunities, and need to hold on to their jobs. Once Binder realized that her job was more about providing the appearance of mental-health services rather than the services themselves, she began to prepare an exit strategy.

In her current position as a behavioral-health specialist at the High Plains Community Health Center, Binder occasionally runs across former Bent County inmates. “About half my caseload are people on probation, so I continue to work in the system,” she says. “Now and then you see somebody where you think, maybe you made a little difference. That makes it worthwhile.”

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Green is the new orange: Barren County's sustainable jail garden

Jail garden project

GLASGOW – With the sun beating down on their faces and fresh air filling their lungs, Barren County Detention Center inmates Melissa House and Andrea Borgemenke shoveled dirt into a wheelbarrow.

When it was full, they wheeled the dirt over to a large mound in the new addition of the BCDC garden.

House and Borgemenke were among eight female inmates participating in the first public workshop of the Breaking Ground: A Sustainable Jail Garden/Food Justice Project on Thursday. Community members and college students joined the inmates in creating the new garden beds.

“We’re all pitching in helping to get this built so we can go ahead and plant the vegetables and everything else that needs to be planted in the beds,” Borgemenke said. “I’m excited about it.”

House said the gardening project has been a really good experience.

“I come to jail and I come out an environmentalist,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about gardening and I’m gonna’ grow my own vegetables and go from there.

“I know I can get it right when I go home. I don’t have to second guess or question anything.”

The jail garden project began in January after Nicole Breazeale, assistant professor of sociology at Western Kentucky University-Glasgow, approached Barren County Jailer Matt Mutter about starting it.

“It’s an educational project,” Breazeale said. “I’m teaching undergraduates and incarcerated women together inside the facility, teaching them about food and food injustices.

“And then there’s a little bit of outside work where we’re learning about agricology as one way to get more control over our food system.”

Breazeale said her Food, Community and Social Change students and the inmates are learning different types of sustainable agriculture techniques from local farmers in the region.

The BCDC inmates have already been eating vegetables produced from the garden.

Borgemenke said they “get to take the vegetables that are out here and mix them in with the food they serve in the jail.”

The BCDC currently has 30 garden beds, and on Thursday they were working on adding an additional hugelkultur mound, which has wooden logs underneath dirt, leaves, manure and hay. The wood acts as a sponge that retains rainwater.

“You don’t have to water these raised beds and they’re way more productive,” Breazeale said. “And you don’t have to add fertilizer or anything.”

Permaculture designer Timothy Kercheville stood on a huge mound of dirt and shoveled it into a wheelbarrow while he wore a giant smile. He said they use experimental techniques and standard raised beds and that this garden project has influenced others in the region.

“The success of this project has already outgrown into the SOKY Community Gardening Initiative,” he said. “There’s a series of 10 community gardens in the Barren River counties that were funded by the Barren River Health Department.

“So this community garden over here at the jail has spread already across the 10 counties. And that’s just after one semester.”

Sierra Morris, a sophomore nursing major at WKU-Glasgow, said she attended the workshop so she could learn more about hugelkultur and use the techniques in her own garden in Logan County.

“I’ll probably end up coming back because everyone is so nice,” she said. “And it’s just really fulfilling whenever you do hard work.”

WKU-Glasgow junior Chloe Hurt was in Breazeale’s initial class that started the project during the spring semester.

“I don’t think anyone really knew what it was going to turn into,” she said. “We just kind of started from a great idea. We had tremendous community support and it was really amazing to see how many different parts of the community came together to support.”

BCDC chief deputy Tracy Bellamy said the project has made a positive impact on the inmates.

“It’s taught ’em a resource that they can use,” he said. “It’s something being productive versus them sitting inside the cells.

“We encourage everyone (in the community) to be a part of it and see what they’re doing.”

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MotherJones.Com "My four months as a private prison guard", by Shane Bauer

Have you ever had a riot?” I ask a recruiter from a prison run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).
“The last riot we had was two years ago,” he says over the phone.
“Yeah, but that was with the Puerto Ricans!” says a woman’s voice, cutting in. “We got rid of them.”
“When can you start?” the man asks.
I tell him I need to think it over.

I take a breath. Am I really going to become a prison guard? Now that it might actually happen, it feels scary and a bit extreme.

Read Why Our Reporter Worked at a Prison

From the editor: Why we sent a reporter to work as a private prison guard

I started applying for jobs in private prisons because I wanted to see the inner workings of an industry that holds 131,000 of the nation’s 1.6 million prisoners. As a journalist, it’s nearly impossible to get an unconstrained look inside our penal system. When prisons do let reporters in, it’s usually for carefully managed tours and monitored interviews with inmates. Private prisons are especially secretive. Their records often aren’t subject to public access laws; CCA has fought to defeat legislation that would make private prisons subject to the same disclosure rules as their public counterparts. And even if I could get uncensored information from private prison inmates, how would I verify their claims? I keep coming back to this question: Is there any other way to see what really happens inside a private prison?

 

CONTINUE READING….

Outrageous Sentences for Marijuana

By THE EDITORIAL BOARDAPRIL 14, 2016

 

Lee Carroll Brooker, a 75-year-old disabled veteran suffering from chronic pain, was arrested in July 2011 for growing three dozen marijuana plants for his own medicinal use behind his son’s house in Dothan, Ala., where he lived. For this crime, Mr. Brooker was given a life sentence with no possibility of release.

Alabama law mandates that anyone with certain prior felony convictions be sentenced to life without parole for possessing more than 1 kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of marijuana, regardless of intent to sell. Mr. Brooker had been convicted of armed robberies in Florida two decades earlier, for which he served 10 years. The marijuana plants collected at his son’s house — including unusable parts like vines and stalks — weighed 2.8 pounds.

At his sentencing, the trial judge told Mr. Brooker that if he “could sentence you to a term that is less than life without parole, I would.” Last year, Roy Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, called Mr. Brooker’s sentence “excessive and unjustified,” and said it revealed “grave flaws” in the state’s sentencing laws, but the court still upheld the punishment.

On Friday, the United States Supreme Court will consider whether to hear Mr. Brooker’s challenge to his sentence, which he argues violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments. The justices should take the case and overturn this sentence.

Life without parole, second only to the death penalty in severity, should never be a mandatory sentence for any crime, much less for simple possession of marijuana, which is not even a crime in many parts of the country. If this punishment is ever meted out, it should be by a judge who has carefully weighed the individual circumstances of a case.

Besides Alabama, only South Dakota, Louisiana and Mississippi have such laws; in Mississippi, possession of barely one ounce of marijuana is enough to trigger a mandatory sentence of life without parole for someone with prior convictions for certain felonies. Almost everywhere else, public attitudes and policy toward drugs in general, and marijuana in particular, have changed significantly. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, and four states, along with D.C., have fully legalized its possession for recreational use. In most states, the maximum sentence for possessing less than three pounds of marijuana is at most five years.

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As Marijuana Goes Mainstream, California Pioneers Rot in Federal Prison

Luke Scarmazzo and Ricardo Montes opened a dispensary in Modesto. Now they’re doing 20 years in federal prison. Their families want them home.

By Angela Bacca / AlterNet

April 13, 2016

Behind the headlines about President Obama’s historic visit to federal prisons and highly publicized releases of non-violent drug offenders, the numbers tell a different story. Despite encouraging and receiving more clemency petitions than any president in U.S. history—more than the last two administrations combined, nearly 20,000very few federal prisoners are actually being granted clemency.

Nowhere is this irony more glaring than in the world of legal cannabis. Cannabis is now considered the fastest-growing industry in the nation, yet remains federally illegal. The sea change from the Department of Justice since 2009 has allowed state-legal cannabis industries to thrive. Federal solutions seem to be around the corner and for the first time cannabis businesses are being publicly traded and receiving legal Wall Street investment.

Ricardo Montes and Luke Scarmazzo are two of the 20,000 federal prisoners appealing to President Obama for clemency. They have exhausted their appeals and are serving 20-year mandatory minimum sentences for openly running a dispensary in the early days of California’s pioneering medical cannabis law. The irony isn’t lost on them that their crimes are now legal and profitable, but their appeals for clemency aren’t based on justice anymore—they just want to be home with their kids. Their daughters, Jasmine Scarmazzo, 13, and Nina Montes, 10, are appealing directly to President Obama to release their fathers via a Change.org petition.  

Nina and Jasmine

Nina Montes is in fifth grade. She is a straight A student who loves math and wants to be a doctor when she grows up. She was just four years old when her dad went to prison. “All I remember is the cops coming and taking him away from me on my birthday,” Nina says. She has always dreamed that her father would be released on her birthday, May 15.  

“It is really sad and it makes me cry [when I visit my dad in prison],” Nina says. “I cry when the time is over and we have to go because we only get three hours, maybe two.”

Nina gets to visit her father once every two months at FCI Lompoc, a five-hour drive from her home in Modesto, Calif.

“All I know is he made a mistake and I don’t think he should be owing that [much time],” Nina says.

Federal prisoners must purchase minutes in order to use phones. They are allowed up to 300 a month and calls are limited to 15 minutes each. Ricardo Montes says he tries to call every other day, sometimes every day, but he has to share his limited phone time between his three children.

“I try to speak to all of them, Nina is the oldest so I have more of a conversation with her. She is at the age now where I can actually explain why I am here,” Montes says. “She didn’t know for a long time. She really doesn’t understand when I explain to her what I did. She’s like, there are still other dispensaries open, why aren’t they going to jail? I told her I have no answer for that.”

Jasmine Scarmazzo is in the eighth grade and loves to debate. Inspired by her father’s case, she says she wants to be a criminal attorney when she grows up. She is increasingly confused as to why her dad is still in prison.

“There were so many tears,” Jasmine says, remembering the day Scarmazzo and Montes were sentenced. “My mom said, your dad got 20 years in prison; I didn’t really comprehend how long that was, I just knew I wasn’t going to see him for a long time. I knew why [he was going to prison]—because of the dispensary—but I was so confused, why is he going to prison if he is helping people?”

Jasmine remained confused until about the age of 8, when she started learning more about federal and state government in school and how it applied to her father’s case.

Over the years legal dispensaries have popped up, not just in Modesto, but across the country. Today marijuana companies are publicly traded and driving legal and profitable Wall Street investment in a handful of states.

“It makes me feel confused, once again, as to why our system is only holding certain people who are doing the same thing in 2016 and are free, and my dad’s in prison,” Jasmine says.  

“Being in prison makes us miss the small normal things that a father and daughter share,” Luke Scarmazzo says. “I don’t get to be there to encourage her successes or console her when she fails or has a bad day. I don’t experience the little things like what she doesn’t like for breakfast or who her friends are. These are attributes that a dad should know and often take for granted, but because of our limited communication, I have to rush to talk to her about the larger mile-markers in life.”

Crime and Punishment

Scarmazzo and Montes opened the California Healthcare Collective in 2004, when they were both 23 years old. Although California became the first medical cannabis state by voter initiative in 1996, dispensaries didn’t begin to appear until the early 2000s, primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area. The state legislature passed S.B. 420 in 2003 to provide basic guidelines for state-legal medical cannabis cultivation and distribution. After the law went into effect on Jan. 1, 2004, more dispensaries began to open, but mainly in San Francisco and Los Angeles. CHC was the first in the Central Valley and served a patient base accustomed to driving an hour or more west to San Francisco and Oakland to obtain safe access under the law.

Montes says there was a clear need for a dispensary in the Central Valley. One local doctor writing cannabis recommendations had said up to 70 percent of his patients, many with cancer, were making regular trips to the Bay Area to access cannabis.

“We were the only ones open and we helped a lot of patients who were sick and couldn’t travel,” Montes says. “It was actually a good thing for the Central Valley… but [local law enforcement and then-mayor Jim Ridenour] didn’t see us as helping people out, they saw us as young kids making money and selling a narcotic drug. We tried to help people. We paid a lot of sales tax [over $1 million], but in that town it doesn’t matter.”

Modesto is largely an agricultural city located about an hour south of Sacramento, the state capital, and about an hour east of the San Francisco Bay. At 9.6 percent in 2015, the city has nearly twice the national average unemployment. Modesto, and the rest of the Central Valley, has consistently ranked high among the highest unemployment averages in the nation.

At the height of its operation, the collective employed up to 14 people.

“The people of the Central Valley are a hard-working, mostly blue-collar community and they don’t earn very high incomes compared to the rest of California,” Luke Scarmazzo says. “Many didn’t have the extra money to regularly make the 100-plus mile commute [to a legal storefront]. The patients that couldn’t afford to travel to the Bay Area before CHC opened were forced to break the law and purchase their recommended medication from the illicit market. It was a terrible hardship on so many levels.”

The dispensary was legal under state law, but as is it still is today, federally illegal. Although many have interpreted the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to leave the regulation of medicine to the states, the federal government affirmed its dominance over state medical cannabis programs in the controversial 2005 Supreme Court decision Gonzalez v. Raich. The federal government argued that because cannabis grown for personal consumption could wind up on the interstate market, the federal government had the authority to enforce federal commerce laws to control state-legal medical marijuana despite voter-approved or supported state legislation.

On Sept. 27, 2006—Jasmine’s fourth birthday—CHC was raided and Scarmazzo and Montes were taken into custody. In 2006, U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott referred to the pair as the “poster children” for the problems with medical marijuana.

“These were drug dealers selling marijuana. This case is that simple,” Scott told the press. He cited $9.2 million in gross sales over two years of operation as evidence the collective was operating for-profit, in opposition to S.B. 420, which required medical cannabis collectives operate not-for-profit.

Gross sales paint an inaccurate picture of actual income and are irrelevant to defining a not-for-profit enterprise. Further, they aren’t completely accurate under state law. Gross sales reflect the total revenues generated before expenses such as labor, security, overhead, legal fees, and perhaps most relevant, cost of goods sold. Under California law, collectives can be reimbursed for their expenses and donations are made to continue the service of cultivating and distributing cannabis to patients. Technically, the numbers reflect gross donations made to the collective before expenses.

Despite what federal prosecutors decried as over-the-top executive compensation, it is not illegal or unheard of that a director at a non-profit could make over $100,000 annually in personal compensation while the business remains a non-profit. Top directors at United Way make just as much and are unquestionably considered not-for-profit.

Scarmazzo and Montes were found guilty of conspiracy, distribution and cultivation of marijuana. 

As Luke Scarmazzo wrote for Kindland.com, “we were also charged with conducting a continuing criminal enterprise (CCE), a Nixon-era drug kingpin offense that carries a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence. No medical marijuana dispensary operator has ever been convicted under this fearsome statute. It has historically been reserved for cartel leaders and international drug kingpins. In fact, the charge is so rarely used that only 0.02 percent of inmates in the U.S., that’s 427 of them, are serving sentences for CCE.”

The FBI defines CCE in terms of membership and leadership, organizations with six or more people, one of which is a primary organizer, involved in organized crime or significant racketeering activity. Scarmazzo and Montes are the only state-legal dispensary owners to be convicted of CCE.

On May 15, 2008—Nina’s third birthday—Scarmazzo and Montes were sentenced and taken into custody. Scarmazzo was sentenced to 21 years and 10 months, Montes to the 20-year mandatory minimum.

Six months later Barack Obama was elected president. Shortly after he took office, in 2009, then-Attorney General Eric Holder released what is now known as the Ogden Memo, outlining the administration’s position in regards to state-legal medical cannabis; the feds said they were backing off compliant cannabis businesses and non-profits in legal states. The new position seemed to be a complete shift from the George W. Bush administration’s strong position against state legal medical cannabis. Cannabis businesses began to pop up all over California and Colorado.

Since Obama took office, four states and Washington D.C. have legalized adult use cannabis and 24 states have legal whole plant medical cannabis programs. In 2013, shortly after Colorado and Washington voters approved legalization initiatives, the Department of Justice issued the Cole Memo, which stated that, for the most part, the DOJ would not use its resources to enforce federal laws in states that had voted to legalize medical or adult use marijuana. Large-scale grow operations are now legal and profitable in many states. These states have not just legalized and regulated, they have taken in hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues.

Today, Harborside Health Center in Oakland boasts over $25 million in gross annual sales. Blum, also in Oakland, recently became the first publicly traded dispensary with an initial valuation of $21 million based on $14 million in gross annual sales when it was acquired by Terratech Corporation. Privateer Holdings, owners of a portfolio of brands including Leafly.com, received the largest infusion of Wall Street capital of any marijuana business to date, $75 million. According to Weedmaps.com, there are four dispensary storefronts operating in the city of Modesto today and over 30 more mobile delivery services in the area.

Scarmazzo and Montes have watched all the legislative change around them from behind bars.

“I have mixed emotions when I read the headlines regarding legal marijuana,” Scarmazzo says. “On one hand, I’m happy to see the progress that is being made, research being conducted and the injustices being addressed. Marijuana in the context of criminal justice reform is something we desperately need in this country. On the other hand it’s extremely frustrating. With almost a decade served in prison, we’ve seen our freedom taken, our properties forfeited and our families lost, for business activities that are essentially legal now and taking place everyday throughout the country. Yet, we continue to struggle through this lengthy mandatory sentence. It’s hard to wrap my mind around sometimes.”

“It’s upsetting because when I got arrested I was young, I was only 26 years old, I thought I was doing something right by following state law,” Montes says. “So by exercising my rights and going to trial to fight for my innocence, they punished us severely. I have no action, so to me when I see that it’s a kick in the face. What did I do wrong?”

Selective Prosecution

Search the name “Luke Scarmazzo” online and the first thing that pops up is a Youtube video called “Kraz-Business Man.” The video depicts scenes of Scarmazzo in a courtroom arguing that his medical cannabis business is legitimate and in alternate scenes smoking blunts and counting cash. Midway through the video he turns his middle finger to the camera and raps, “Fuck the Feds.” The video was an undeniably dumb move for a man running a state-legal medical cannabis dispensary in unchartered territory in the earliest days of Prop. 215, though hardly a crime. The video was introduced as evidence against Scarmazzo and Montes in court.

Twelve years later, Montes and Scarmazzo are in their mid-30s and their daughters are growing up without them. 

“My daughter, Jasmine, was four years old when I was arrested. Ricardo’s daughter, Nina, was two. Today they are entering high school and junior high school, respectively,” Luke Scarmazzo wrote for Kindland.com. “They have spent much of their young lives growing up without their fathers. The impact is visible and saddening. According to a 2014 Rutgers University study, one in 28 children in the USA currently have an incarcerated parent. These children have a greater chance of living in poverty and an increased risk of experiencing serious mental-health issues.”

With all appeals exhausted, their only hope of early release is for President Obama to grant them clemency. Their applications are one of over 20,000 the administration has received. Jasmine and Nina hope that by appealing to supporters around the country via the petition they can ultimately reach President Obama.

“My dad is a good man. He made a mistake, but he is very sorry for it,” Nina says. “President Obama has two daughters. I don’t think they would like it if he went to prison for 20 years. His daughters would be miserable and want him home—he would want to come home too. That’s the exact same way I feel.”

“As we do time we realize our mistakes. Ignorance of the law is no excuse; at the time I didn’t understand federal law and how it trumps state law,” Montes says. “Now I understand it’s illegal federally. When I was young I didn’t understand that. We all make mistakes. Hopefully he could forgive our mistakes.”

“I’ve made some big mistakes in the past, ones that have greatly affected those closest to me, and I’m fully responsible for those poor decisions. But I ask for a second opportunity to prove I can make a positive impact, and most importantly, return to being a responsible father to a little girl that means the world to me,” Luke Scarmazzo says.

Sign the Change.org petition, “President Obama, Free Our Dads.”

Angela Bacca is a Portland, Oregon-based writer, photographer and medical cannabis patient. She has been published in Cannabis Now, SFCritic Music Blog, Skunk Magazine, and West Coast Cannabis, among others. 

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

 

Ninth Circuit Affirms Convictions of Two Modesto Men for Growing and Selling Marijuana

Modesto Marijuana Collective Owners Convicted

I Am Serving 20 Years For Opening a Medical Cannabis Dispensary

Ex-judge urges Obama to commute harsh sentence he was forced to give

http://www.thecannabist.co/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/mandatory-sentence-Weldon-Angelos-federal-judge-paul-cassell-800x496.jpg

A former federal judge in Utah is asking President Barack Obama to commute the sentence for Weldon Angelos, a music producer who was jailed in 2004. Pictured: In this Nov. 15, 2005 file photo, members of Safer Choice stand in protest at a Denver federal courthouse, where the court was hearing an appeal of Angelos’ conviction. (Ed Andrieski, Associated Press file)

 

Ex-judge urges Obama to commute harsh sentence he was forced to give

Weldon Angelos prison sentence: A former federal judge says the 55-year drug sentence he had to hand down is ‘unjust, cruel and irrational’ for a nonviolent offender who was subject to a lengthy prison term for bringing a gun to marijuana deals

Published: Feb 10, 2016, 5:20 pm Comments (6)

By Lindsay Whitehurst, The Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — A former federal judge who gave a Utah music producer 55 years in prison for bringing a gun to marijuana deals asked the president to commute the sentence Tuesday, the latest appeal in a case held up as an example of problems with mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Paul Cassell, now a law professor, said in a clemency petition letter that he was deeply troubled by the lengthy sentence he was forced to hand down in 2004 to Weldon Angelos, then a 24-year-old father of three.

The sentence he called “unjust, cruel, and even irrational” was the main reason Cassell stepped down from the bench after five years. Angelos got a longer prison term than people convicted of crimes such as kidnapping, rape and second-degree murder, Cassell said.

“When the sentence for actual violence inflicted on a victim is dwarfed by a sentence for carrying guns to several drug deals, the implicit message to victims is that their pain and suffering counts for less than some abstract ‘war on drugs,’” the former judge wrote.

Angelos likely would not face such a harsh sentence today, Cassell said. President Barack Obama has pushed for the reduction or outright elimination of severe mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders. The White House did not immediately return a message seeking comment Tuesday.

Angelos founded Extravagant Records in Utah, producing hip-hop and rap music. He had no criminal record before he was convicted of selling $350 worth of marijuana to a police informant three times.

Prosecutors said he was a gang member who carried a gun during two of those deals, though he was not accused of using or showing a weapon. Angelos denied being in a gang and having a firearm, but police found several guns while searching his apartment.

He was convicted in federal court of 16 counts of drug trafficking, weapons possession and money laundering.

The penalty for possessing firearms during a drug transaction carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for the first offense and 25 years for each subsequent deal. The federal system does not have parole.

It’s not the first time the president has been urged to commute Angelos’ sentence. In 2013, more than 100 high-profile figures petitioned the White House, including an ex-FBI director, prosecutors and celebrities.

Politicians such as Republican Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and Democratic Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy also have said the punishment didn’t fit the crime. The conservative billionaire Koch brothers have also taken notice of the case in their push for sentencing reform.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Utah declined to comment on the case. But Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Lund said in 2004: “This sends the message that people who engage in armed drug dealing are going to face very serious consequences.”

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the sentence, and the U.S. Supreme Court has denied Angelos’ petition for a hearing.

Angelos, now 36, has served more than 12 years in prison, and a presidential commutation is his only option.

His sister, Lisa Angelos, said the clemency letter is a “huge” step that she hopes is a turning point. Weldon Angelos has spent his time in a prison in California earning a business degree, working in the institution’s dental lab and tutoring others, she said.

The expense of traveling there makes it hard for his family to visit, and he recently saw his sons, now 17 and 19, for the first time in years, his sister said.

“He’s missing out on basically their entire lives,” Lisa Angelos said.

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