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

Here’s a dispatch from the ongoing war on drugs that Georgia continues to wage. You keep hearing that nickel-and-dime marijuana cases no longer take place. That law enforcement has moved on to real crimes.

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Not so.

This is one of those throwback cases that the state's drug-industrial machine can't seem to let go of, even though such prosecutions have been discredited for inherent unfairness and wasting public resources.

Several states have legalized pot use; others have decriminalized it. But in Georgia, it sometimes takes the common sense of 12 sensible citizens sitting in a jury box to tell authorities to knock it off. This here has the ring of jury nullification.

Three and a half weeks ago, a jury heard the case of Georgia vs. Antonio Willis, a resident of Laurens County, which is southeast of Macon and is best known for issuing speeding tickets to Atlantans driving along I-16 on their way to Savannah. Willis faced going to prison for up to five years for selling the equivalent of a few joints.

In November 2012, Willis was a 30-something factory worker who had been laid off when he ran into a dude named “Luis” at the mailboxes near the entrance of his mobile home park.

Luis drove a Honda beater with construction material stuffed inside to give him the look of a working man. But he was really a Dublin cop named Flores who switched into an exaggerated Hispanic accent straight out of Cheech and Chong when dealing with suspects.

“Whazzup mahn?”

A video shows Luis stringing Willis along with a chance to snag a construction job with his company. Implicit in this relationship is Luis getting a little weed to smoke so that their "friendship" can continue.

“My bossmahn sez he only can pay $16 an hour,” Luis tells Willis after Willis rode his bike to another trailer to pick up a couple of joints of weed for the cop.

“That’s cool. That’s damn good,” Willis responds.

“I’ll tell him I’m your friend,” Luis says before driving away.

Catherine Bernard, an Atlanta attorney who does some public defender work in Middle Georgia, said prosecutors knocked off most prospective jurors who said pot should be legal. The jury ended up with three residents who had law enforcement in their families.

Catherine Bernard, an Atlanta attorney, fought to clear Antonio Willis. 

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This case had languished in the system for five years, and Willis had been offered deals of doing 10 years probation and, later, five years probation. Normally defendants take pleas, especially if prison hangs in the balance.

“If I’d pushed him to plea, he would have,” Bernard she said. “But taking a plea (and going on probation) still would have impacted his life. They run your life. You’re still really in jail, they just let you walk around.”

Bernard, a Republican who has run unsuccessfully for the Legislature, conceded that going to trial brings the risk of prison. She said that as a lawyer, she must weigh her duties to a client’s best interest with those of fighting an unjust system.

The case should have been a slam-dunk. Willis was on tape handing a couple of grams of pot to Luis. To counter that, Bernard put him on the stand to testify.

Dublin area resident Antonio Willis, pictured in a police sting video, was then an out-of-work factory worker picking up a couple of grams of weed for an undercover cop named “Luis.” Willis thought Luis was helping him get a construction job.

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Willis, who said, “This has been hanging over my head for five years,” told me he was nervous but just wanted to tell the jurors who he was and why he helped this “Luis” fellow get some weed.

“He kept saying, ‘I need a joint,’ ” Willis said. “I’m thinking, ‘It’ll help me get a job.’ I just took it as friendship.”

The evidence. 

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A retired sheriff’s deputy named Tom McCain sat in the courtroom watching the trial and worried when the jury came back in 18 minutes.

“I thought he was cooked,” said McCain, now the executive director of Peachtree NORML (National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws). “You get up on the stand and say you did this. And there’s a video?”

But the verdict was not guilty.

McCain said the mixed-race jury was “looking for something to hang their hats on. He presented himself well and the jury wanted to cut him a break.”

Former sheriff’s deputy and retired Air Force veteran Tom McCain now heads Peachtree NORML, which fights for better marijuana laws.

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McCain added that Bernard in her closing argument told jurors that they are the finders of law and facts in the case. In essence, that they had power.

Bernard said that being in an old-fashioned courthouse like that in Laurens County instills a sense of citizenship into jurors. “In the newer courthouses, they treat jurors like infants. They feel powerless. But they should be the most powerful.”

Juror Stanley Jessup, whose brother is a sheriff elsewhere, told me the jurors disliked the police tactics — of a video that worked intermittently, of stringing Willis along with the job, of the amount being prosecuted.

"It was a ridiculous case to be trying," he said. "If you're going to catch someone with drugs, then catch someone with a lot of drugs. With as lenient as it seems to be with marijuana, why ruin someone's life over two cigarettes?"

The district attorney’s office from the Dublin Judicial Circuit did not respond to written questions.

McCain, in his duties for NORML, said he has heard from cities across the state wanting to ease penalties for pot.

“But if you make 75 different ordinances in 75 places, you have a problem,” McCain said. “The Legislature needs to fix this. It takes an old fart like me to get the conversation started, but if we’re talking, we’re winning. The legislators don’t have a clue how people feel — or they’re being willfully blind to what’s going on.”

Said Willis, “I think it’s a stupid thing to prosecute people for it. It’s ridiculous for the system to waste its time doing this. I believe the jury felt the same way.”

He thinks law enforcement is shifting its thinking on the matter. “But it’ll take longer for Georgia.”