Oakland pot activist spared from prison

March 03, 2003

Josh Richman-Oakland Tribune,

The federal magistrate judge who last week sentenced a prominent Oakland medical marijuana activist to 90 days behind bars for leafletting potential jurors reversed himself Monday, ordering probation instead. Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative executive director Jeff Jones, 28, went to Sacramento on Monday expecting to surrender himself and start serving his prison time. Many supporters were shocked that Jones, an earnest and well-respected activist with no prior offenses, was being sent to prison at all. But U.S. Magistrate Judge Peter A. Nowinski indicated Monday that he felt he had acted too harshly, and had erred by not letting Jones address the court at his sentencing. Nowinski showed a "compassion to rule in a way that's right and just," Jones said later Monday. "I feel he was open-minded." Jones was arrested outside Sacramento's federal courthouse June 24, the day jurors were being selected to try Bryan Epis of Chico. Epis later was convicted of growing marijuana and now is serving a 10-year sentence. Jones and other activists that day handed out a leaflet giving Epis' side of the story: his belief that California's 1996 medical marijuana law -- Proposition 215 -- protected him, even though federal law still bans marijuana. When that case's judge found some potential jurors had received the leaflets, he decided the whole panel of potential jurors had been tainted and dismissed them all. Nowinski convicted Jones in December of influencing a juror by writing, a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in prison. On Thursday, he sentenced Jones to serve three months behind bars and pay $3,925 restitution for the cost of seating a new jury panel.Sentence withdrawn But Monday -- after Jones spent the weekend mulling what 90 days in the federal prison at Atwater would be like -- Nowinski withdrew the sentence and replaced it with a three-year probation term. Jones already has paid the restitution. Federal prosecutors asked Nowinski on Monday to impose a fine as well, but the magistrate refused, Jones said. "He said, 'I think Mr. Jones has had $1,000 worth of anguished thoughts this weekend.'" The case's odd ending was clouded by a possible terrorism threat Monday. Deputy U.S. Marshal David Gump said someone screening a tub of incoming mail at Sacramento's federal courthouse Monday afternoon found an unknown powdery substance and called the Marshal's Service and the Sacramento Fire Department.Tests 'negative' "The initial field tests that were conducted on the substance were negative," he said, adding the substance was taken to the county health department where more comprehensive test results wouldn't be available until later.. Gump said he didn't know whether the substance had been linked to specific pieces of mail. But Jones said Nowinski had told him the powder was contained in two letters -- one to Nowinski, and one to U.S. District Judge Frank Damrell, who had presided over Bryan Epis' case. And Jones said his own attorney, Michael Bigelow of Sacramento, said his law office might have received a suspicious letter as well. Bigelow couldn't be reached to comment Monday. Contact Josh Richman at jrichman@angnewspapers.com .

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