Denny Walsh, Sacramento Bee Staff Writer,
The jurors reach a verdict after being told to ignore all medical-use evidence and argument.
Bryan James Epis, who says he smoked marijuana for chronic pain and wanted to grow it for others who were sick, was found guilty Thursday by a jury in Sacramento federal court of conspiracy and manufacturing the drug. He faces a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison on the jury's finding that he conspired to eventually boost his crop to at least 1,000 plants.
The panel also found that he grew at least 100 plants in the spring of 1997 at his Chico residence. The fact that his house is within 1,000 feet of Chico Senior High School could increase the penalty. Defense lawyer J. Tony Serra said there will be an appeal. Epis, 35, who has electrical engineering and law degrees, helped finance the start-up of a cannabis buyers club in Chico after voters approved California's 1996 initiative allowing the use of marijuana on a doctor's recommendation. His prosecution is the first federal criminal case involving such an organization to reach a jury. Sentencing was set for Aug. 26. U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. granted prosecutor Samuel Wong's motion that Epis be jailed pending sentencing. Wong pointed out that the law under which Epis was found guilty mandates immediate incarceration, and the judge agreed. Serra asked Damrell to circumvent the statute and allow his client to remain free until he is sentenced, but the judge wouldn't go along. Epis and Serra hugged, and Epis was led away by a deputy U.S. marshal. Even though medical necessity is not a defense in federal court against marijuana manufacturing charges, the jurors heard a lot of testimony from Epis and other defense witnesses on the subject, as well as argument by Serra. After being instructed by Damrell to disregard medicinal-use evidence and argument, the panel of eight women and four men took less than four hours to decide Epis' guilt. As he excused them, Damrell told the jurors they are now free to talk about the case. But there was no post-verdict access to the jurors, who have been quasi-sequestered from the beginning. Just as they have been on every other trial day for more than two weeks, the panelists -- escorted by court security officers -- were taken to the basement of the courthouse on a freight elevator and driven in a van to Cal Expo, where they have parked throughout the proceedings. While at the courthouse, the jurors were kept together and always accompanied by court security officers. Their lunches were brought to them in the fourth floor juror lounge from the second floor cafeteria. Damrell ordered these unusual measures because he was afraid the jurors would be tainted by pro-medical marijuana demonstrators. On the sidewalks at the corner of Fifth and I streets, these activists sporadically displayed picket signs attacking the federal no-tolerance pot policy and what they view as Draconian sentences. Epis supporters were also in and out of the building and were regular spectators in the courtroom, making Damrell and Wong uneasy about allowing jurors to wander around on their own. As recently as Wednesday, Wong relayed information to the judge from court security officers that 'stickers' supporting medical marijuana were being left in building restrooms. Damrell agreed that would be inappropriate but said he would rely on the security officers to make sure any such material is removed. Epis still faces a possibility of being held in criminal contempt if it is determined that he had a hand in distributing a statement by him about the case that was available from demonstrators June 24, the day the trial was supposed to start. A hearing on that question is set before Damrell on Aug. 1. Serra has told the judge that the statement had been on his client's Web site for months and was downloaded without his permission. Damrell disqualified the first pool of prospective jurors and a jury was not selected until June 26. The second group of prospects reported to Arco Arena and were bused into the courthouse basement. When Serra heard of this, he protested vigorously, saying that -- in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- Damrell had created an intolerable environment that would inevitably instill fear and anxiety in the jurors. The attorney asked for yet a third group of prospects, but the judge rejected that notion. In addition to the criminal contempt question, the prosecution of Jeffrey Jones is part of the wreckage left by the trial. Jones, 28, who headed the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative until it was shut down recently by a federal court injunction, was detained June 24 by a drug agent and, at Damrell's request, cited by a security officer for handing a flier to a potential juror. By the time he was arraigned Wednesday, however, the case had grown to a two-count charging document filed by the U.S. attorney's office. It accuses him of 'picketing and parading' and 'influencing a juror by writing.' Both are misdemeanors punishable by a year in prison and six months in prison, respectively. Jones pleaded not guilty, and a status conference is set for Aug. 7. He was released on his own recognizance.