MISSOULA – Potential jurors staged a “mutiny” during a felony drug case, a Missoula County prosecutor says, and authorities worry the result will be viewed as a game-changer when it comes to future attempts at prosecuting drug cases in Montana.
Nearly all 27 Missoula County residents during the jury selection process on Thursday told District Court Judge Dusty Deschamps there was no way they would convict anybody of having a couple of buds of marijuana.
“I thought, ‘Geez, I don’t know if we can seat a jury,'” said Deschamps, who called a recess.
The case involved Touray Cornell, whose criminal history includes numerous felony convictions and in his latest case faced a felony charge of criminal distribution of dangerous drugs.
That charge stemmed from an April 23 search of his home following complaints from neighbors he was selling drugs. Police said they found burnt marijuana cigarettes, a pipe and some residue.
An affidavit said Cornell admitted to distributing small amounts of marijuana and connecting other dealers with customers, getting small amounts of marijuana for himself as payment.
At the time of his arrest Cornell was out on bail on a charge of felony conspiracy to commit theft, of which he was convicted in August.
During the recess called by Deschamps on Thursday, Deputy Missoula County Attorney Andrew Paul worked out a plea agreement with the defense.
“A mutiny,” Paul told the Missoulian in describing the actions of the potential jurors.
“Bizarre,” said Cornell’s defense attorney, Martin Elison.
In the plea memorandum filed by Elison, he noted that public opinion “is not supportive of the state’s marijuana law and appeared to prevent any conviction from being obtained simply because an unbiased jury did not appear available under any circumstances.”
On Friday, Cornell entered an Alford plea, meaning he does not admit guilt but acknowledges there is enough evidence to convict him. Deschamps then sentenced him to 20 years in prison with 19 suspended, to be served concurrently with his sentence in the theft case.
Cornell was given credit for the 200 days he’s already served.
“I’m not convinced in any way that you don’t present an ongoing threat to the community,” Deschamps told Cornell during the sentencing, calling him an “eight-time loser” in a reference to the number of Cornell’s previous felonies.
The potential jurors in the case ranged in ages from 20s to 60s, with one of the most vocal in her 60s.
“It’s kind of a reflection of society as a whole on the issue,” said Deschamps.
Missoula County voters in 2006 approved an initiative requiring law enforcement to treat marijuana crimes as their lowest priority. In 2004, Montana voters legalized medical marijuana by initiative.
“I think it’s going to become increasingly difficult to seat a jury in marijuana cases, at least the ones involving a small amount,” Deschamps said.
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