Drug War Original Theodore Hamm

Rats from Hell: Notes from a Federal Weed Trial

As weed remains illegal at the federal level, the Maryland federal district attorney’s office continues to be a hardliner in terms of Drug War prosecutions. 
Marijuana is legal for recreational use in 18 states and legal for medical use in 37, a multibillion-dollar industry in states all over the political spectrum.

By Theodore Hamm / Original to ScheerPost

“Hey Chris, I thought they retired your ass,” a lawyer joked to the veteran prosecutor as he wheeled a hand-truck stacked with boxes out of the courtroom on Friday afternoon, May 6. 

Christopher Romano had just wrapped up the successful federal prosecution of Jonathan Wall for conspiring to deliver large quantities of weed from California to Maryland. This fall, voters in Maryland will decide whether to join the 18 other states that have currently legalized pot for recreational use. 

But at the federal level, weed remains a crime. And the Maryland federal district attorney’s office continues to be a hardliner in terms of Drug War prosecutions. 

Wall now faces a sentence of ten years to life. Meanwhile, the boxes on Romano’s hand-truck were full of evidence — weed, scales, edibles, vape pens, etc. — that can be purchased at storefront dispensaries across the land. 

Romano, who appears to be in his late 60s, is diminutive and sports a gray walrus mustache with a comb-over hairdo. He speaks with a distinct Chesapeake lilt — which is slightly high-pitched and drops the h’s (e.g. “home” is “omm”). It’s a safe bet that he’s sent scores of people to federal prison over the last several decades.  

In his summation, Romano told the jury that there was an axiom he learned right after law school when he attended a prosecutor training center down in Houston. “When you’re trying the devil,” the saying goes, “sometimes you gotta go to hell to get your witnesses.” 

While he assured the jurors that “Mr. Wall is not the devil,” Romano made it clear that in the eyes of a career federal lawman, hell is where unlawful activity takes place. Wall was one of ten people named in the weed conspiracy indictment. His trial saw the testimony of seven of the other defendants who had pleaded guilty and cooperated with the government. Hell is full of rats. 

Like Wall, many of the cooperators were 20-something white guys from the better-off Baltimore suburbs, with some meeting Wall when they played lacrosse as teenagers. Most of the crew finished high school, except one who only completed the 7th Grade. He looks like a guy who lets his fists do the talking. 

The witnesses uniformly sang the prosecutors’ tune about Wall’s role as the bulk supplier of weed. It was notable that they did so with their masks on. The judge gave them the option to do so with their masks off, provided they had been vaccinated. Given that many of them affirmed their enthusiasm for a wide range of chemical substances while on the stand, it’s implausible that all were unvaxxed. The masks instead covered up any grimacing or biting of lips.  

As the New York Times reported, in order to prevent possible jury nullification, federal judge Stephanie Gallagher “emphatically” thwarted any attempt by Wall’s defense attorney Jason Flores-Williams to bring up the wave of weed legalization witnessed across the nation over the past decade. Gallagher also was outraged by a flyer circulating outside the courthouse that informed prospective jurors of their ability to reject the prosecution’s anachronistic weed charges. 

Gallagher, 50, donated to John McCain’s 2008 campaign, but became a district judge under Obama, only to be renewed by Trump. Although Obama claimed to appoint judges who were not “ideologically driven,” Gallagher’s handling of the case clearly showed her to be a Drug War hardliner. Not surprisingly, she sustained nearly every one of the prosecution’s objections. 

When a trooper testified, Gallagher also took his side. Every time Flores-Williams asked him about the “pot” seized in a Baltimore raid, the trooper—who looked like a ZZ Top roadie—insisted on calling it “marijuana.” When Flores-Williams said “Are we you we gonna have a war over whether to call it pot or marijuana?” Gallagher decreed it would be the latter. 

In his closing argument, Flores-Williams—a theatrical performer—told the jury that “The government says it’s not a ‘pot case,’” meaning the charge was conspiracy to distribute, not simply possess, sticky buds. But the defense lawyer then declared, “It is a pot case!”

That was as close to the legalization issue that Flores-Williams would get. In his cross-examination of witnesses and his summation, Flores-Williams highlighted the government’s lack of evidence corroborating the witness accounts. Is it really possible to drive from Maryland to California in a pickup truck, leave it there to be sold, and fly home to Baltimore–with no receipts? 

The prosecutors presented no direct evidence that Wall made the actual weed transactions in question. They only provided court documents showing that the defendant had roughly $125k in cash seized from him at airports in California and Arizona—suggesting that Wall was involved in illicit activities. The prosecutors repeatedly responded to the lack of evidence by stating that the defendant and his accomplices communicated via Signal’s encrypted messages, yet they did not furnish any meta-data. 

In his closing, Flores-Williams called the government’s belief that they could prosecute someone without providing corroborating evidence the “arrogance of power.” Although generally young (as in 30s to mid-50s), over half of the jury are public sector employees. The forewoman is a teacher. It was not exactly an audience ready to fight the government. 

Even so, the most plausible explanation for the jury’s quick guilty verdict is not a conservative stance on weed, nor does it reflect a mystic reverence for the law. Rather, the transactions described by the witnesses often involved $100k or more in cash, which adds up to a lot of untaxed money (in fact, the more appropriate charge of tax evasion would have been impossible to nullify). Also detrimental was Wall’s courtroom demeanor, which included constantly scribbling notes and pulling on his attorney’s ear while the prosecution presented. Nobody likes a know-it-all defendant. 

But there was one person who clearly responded to the “arrogance” charge. It was the guy with the walrus moustache, who has spent his career exercising the federal government’s expanding powers amid the Drug War. After Flores-Williams’ dramatic summation, Romano told the jury not to listen to the lawyer who had been “strutting around” saying bad things about the government’s case. One can only hope that the feds “retire” Romano and his fellow drug warriors soon. 

Theodore Hamm

Theodore Hamm is the author of Bernie’s Brooklyn: How Growing Up in the New Deal City Shaped Bernie Sanders’ Politics and Frederick Douglass in Brooklyn.  Follow him on Twitter @Hammerdaily

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