Considering the overwhelming evidence that they grew marijuana and the plainness of the federal law banning pot of any kind, a family of medical marijuana growers in Eastern Washington were handed the best realistically possible verdict from a federal jury late today.
The three remaining members of the group known as the "Kettle Falls Five" were found guilty of growing marijuana, but acquitted on all the other crimes they were accused of: conspiracy to grow and distribute, distribution, owning firearms "in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime," and—for one of the defendants, Rhonda Firestack-Harvey—maintaining a "drug-involved premise[s]."
The jury found that the group grew fewer than 100 plants (but more than 50), which defense attorney Jeffrey Niesen says is likely to result in less than the five-year mandatory minimum they were facing for 100 plants or more. And, now that they'll no longer be in front of a jury, the family will be able to argue at sentencing that they were growing the plants for medical use.
The bigger threat to these defendants was the charge of owning guns "in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime," as prosecutors put it. Obviously, "drug trafficking" is not the reason this family owned guns, and thankfully the jury could see that.
A conviction on the firearms charge would have tacked on a further five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence to whatever they got for the pot. The sentencing doesn't happen until early summer. If these defendants had been convicted of both the growing charge and the gun charge, defense attorney Niesen says, the judge would likely have been unwilling to reduce the mandatory minimum sentences when the time came.
When the case was handed over to the 12 jurors this morning, Niesen told me, "If we win that one [firearms] count, we really have won the case."
So, according to their own lawyer: They won.
After the court clerk read the verdict, Assistant US Attorney Earl Hicks tried to convince the judge to immediately send Rhonda to prison or require her to undergo electronic home monitoring, but the judge said he would only hear such a request through a written motion. Rhonda, whose 71-year-old husband, Larry, was dropped from the case after recently being diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer, said she was ready to make her case at sentencing, which is scheduled for June 10.
"Now," she told me, shivering in the evening air outside the federal courthouse in Spokane tonight, "we get to tell our truth."