Torpy at Large: Man grows pot. Admits it. Jury sends him home

Javonnie McCoy was growing marijuana when the cops came to his Middle Georgia home. He was caught red-handed with it. Almost a pound of it, in fact. He admitted it to police, and later he looked jurors in the eye and said, yep, it was mine. I used it as medicine.

The jurors let him go. He was minding his own business and wasn’t hurting anybody, they reasoned. He just doesn’t belong in prison.

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The jury’s decision earlier this month in Dublin, Ga., may have been due to a muddled prosecution of a muddy case. Or it may have been jury nullification, another case of citizens saying prosecutions for pot are not worth law enforcement’s time and effort — or the impact on otherwise law-abiding people’s lives.

It was the second such win in the Laurens County circuit for Atlanta attorney Catherine Bernard, a conservative Republican who's also a staunch civil libertarian. Late last year, another client of hers 'fessed up to a jury that he had sold a couple of nickel bags to an insistent undercover drug cop. That client was cut loose after just 18 minutes of deliberation.

And this is no liberal soft-on-crime region. Donald Trump won the county 2-1.

Bernard also helped get North Georgia authorities to drop charges against the parents of a 15-year-old whose parents allowed him to smoke pot to help combat severe seizures.

Ultimately, what may have kept McCoy out of an orange jumpsuit was that his lawyer urged the jury to empower themselves. She told them they are not potted plants or an unthinking arm of government. They, in fact, are the government. She read to the jury a section from the Georgia Constitution that says, "The jury shall be the judges of the law and the facts."

Bernard said the judge chided her for bringing that up, but it seems the words sank in.

The case started when police were called to McCoy’s mobile home four years ago. McCoy’s half-brother had allegedly attacked him with a stick and McCoy grabbed his .22 rifle, the one he uses to hunt squirrels, and shot his sibling in the shoulder.

Police found several potted plants in McCoy’s bedroom and tagged him with several charges including aggravated assault and manufacturing marijuana, a felony that can bring 10 years. The case stalled in the system and McCoy decided to go to trial. Right before the trial, the state dropped the assault accusation but kept the pot felony charge. (Prosecutors did not respond to my messages.)

Javonnie McCoy and lawyer Catherine Bernard celebrate a not guilty verdict, even though McCoy testified that he indeed was growing pot. 

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McCoy was offered eight years’ probation, Bernard says, but chose to fight the case.

During trial, McCoy decided to testify. He had little choice. He was caught red-handed. He said his attorney told him, “Talk to them. They will connect with you.”

He gulped and sat in the witness box, telling jurors that 15 years ago he was mugged and beaten into a coma. He has suffered migraines and depression and ended up self-medicating with pot “because Zoloft turned me into a zombie.”

Prosecutors “tried to make it look so bad, that I was selling it. But I had nothing to hide,” McCoy told me, explaining his decision to testify. “The jurors had their eyes on me, I had my eyes on them.”

“Marijuana makes you eat,” McCoy told the jury. “It made me feel calm. It made me relax. It helps with my pain.”

He is a country guy who lives by “hustling” — painting, landscaping, selling fish, driving people to the store.

Ultimately, he said, “We had a jury you could relate to. Truck drivers, mechanics, construction. People who worked. They saw I wasn’t bothering nobody. That’s what I believe they felt.”

Bernard said she doesn’t coach defendants before testifying because juries pick up on that. “I think they appreciated his honesty.”

People in Dublin have respect for the law, Bernard said. But this was about fairness, about properly using law enforcement resources.

Dublin area resident Antonio Willis, pictured in a police sting video, was an unemployed factory worker when he picked up a couple of grams of weed for an undercover cop that Willis thought was helping him get a job. Atlanta attorney Catherine Bernard won Willis’ acquittal.

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“In America we leave someone alone if they are not bothering somebody,” Bernard said. “A world where he needs to be dragged away by armed men and put in a cage is not a world where people want to live.”

She doesn’t like the term jury nullification. “It brings up a negative image. It’s simply part of being a jury. The jury judges the law and the facts.”

Denise de La Rue, a jury consultant not involved in this case, said, “Jurors are really interested in justice. There are often cases of no loss, no foul. There’s no real victim here.”

That’s pretty much what the jurors said.

A couple said the case presented to them by prosecutors was a mess because the lawyers had to avoid talking about the shooting. In fact, the jurors I spoke with never even knew the missing charge involved a shooting. Two of them said “second chances” also played heavily into their verdict.

Lizzie Mae Davis said, “He was believable. He wasn’t trying to make money. He had it to ease his health.”

Davis said she really has no problem with people using pot — “as long as they’re not around me.”

RELATED: Torpy at Large: Reefer Madness still lives in parts of Georgia

IN DEPTH: Attitudes about pot shift in Georgia, but tough laws remain

Juror Brian Loyd said of the verdict, “Sometimes good things happen to good people.”

Kenneth Thompson, who works in construction, said jurors liked that McCoy was “forthright.”

Ultimately, they decided, the man didn’t deserve to get tossed into the slammer.

“If he’s disrupting the peace and dignity of the state, well, a lot of us said he wasn’t bothering anybody,” Thompson said.

By that, he was referring to an argument that Bernard made, pointing out the indictment has standard Georgia legalese that says the alleged crime was “contrary to the laws of said state, the good order, peace, and dignity thereof.”

How on earth was a man in a trailer growing weed for his headaches affecting anyone’s good order, peace or dignity? she argued.

It’s good to see citizens often have more common sense than the system.