Friday, April 13, 2012

Marijuana, Prosecutors and Cancer



The defendant stood outside the courthouse, a joint of marijuana in his hand as he puffed furiously to get as much as he could before coming into court. I was a young criminal prosecutor and had only dealt with a few marijuana cases, but I guessed that it probably was not a wise decision to smoke pot in front of the courthouse.

The bailiffs, who are indeed law enforcement officers, came out, questioned him, cited him, and then let him go so he could come inside the court and deal with his previous charge; which was of course, marijuana.

The courtroom was warm and the air conditioner only worked occasionally. I heard it click on as I rose from the prosecution table and went out to the space in between the two double doors leading to the courtroom and spoke to this man. He was older, maybe sixties, and had oxygen with him as well as a cane. There was something wrapped around his belly that looked like a weight belt.

"So Mr. ____, looks like you're here for marijuana charges that arose at your house on April the 22nd. Is that right?"

"Yup."

"And you don't want an attorney to represent you?"

"Nope."

"And looks like you just got cited for some marijuana you were smoking outside the courthouse. I gotta say, I have not seen that before."

He grinned and said, "Yeah, sorry about that. I don't want you to think I'm disrespecting you or the court at all."

"Why would you smoke pot right outside when there's twenty cops in here?"

He was quiet a few moments and I could see tears well up in his eyes. He cleared his throat and said, "I got cancer. It's in my stomach, that's what this thing is. Inoperable. I only got a few years left and this helps with the pain. I understand you do what you gotta do, so I'm not mad at you. But I want you to know that it helps with the pain. Without it I'd be in a hospital bed somewhere just trying to die."

I closed his file. "I'm sorry."

"Yeah, thanks. So, is there gonna be jail time or something?"

"No, follow me."

We walked into the courtroom and when the judge had finished with the case she was handling I stood up and called Mr._______'s case.

"Your Honor," I said. "I would move to dismiss this case in the interests of justice."

The judge replied, "It is so dismissed."

I walked the man to the door and said "Good luck." He looked at me, and I could see tears in his eyes again. All he managed to say was, "Thank you."

There were moments that I enjoyed being a prosecutor but they rarely involved getting convictions. They were the moments that I was able to bring help to somebody that didn't have anyone else to help them. There was no victim in this case. Just a dying man trying to prepare himself for the hereafter. I was proud of what I did.

The County of Salt Lake was not so proud and that's when I began to see that perhaps being a criminal defense attorney fit my personality far more than being a prosecutor. Crimes are charged everyday that have no business taking up space in our courtrooms. I understand that what this man did was illegal, but so is adultery. How many adulters do you see in court facing charges? The reason is because of prosecutorial discretion. The prosecutor is usually the most powerful person in the courtroom. Justice usually is what he believes it to be.

Unfortunately there are some prosecutors that abuse this power. The power itself gives them a feeling of superiority over the people they are prosecuting. I have met many intelligent, sensitive, decent, moral prosecutors. Practicing as a defense attorney across the state, I have also met some petty, angry prosecutors that take out their pettiness on the people coming through the courts.

I still think of that man in court even to this day and the soft Thank You he gave me before leaving. Dismissing unjust cases were some of my proudest moments as a prosecutor. Hopefully, if we're lucky, many prosecutors out there now feel the same way.

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