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Georgia man admits growing marijuana in home, jury sends him home

Police said Javonnie McCoy was growing marijuana when they came to his Georgia home and caught him red-handed with it. Almost a pound of it, in fact, according to police who said he admitted it, and later, he looked jurors in the eye and said it was his and used it as medicine.

The jurors let him go. He was minding his own business and wasn’t hurting anybody, they reasoned. He just doesn’t belong in prison.

The jury’s decision earlier this month in Dublin, Georgia, may have been due to a muddled prosecution of a muddy case. Or it may have been jury nullification, another case of citizens saying prosecutions for marijuana are not worth law enforcement’s time and effort — or the impact on otherwise law-abiding people’s lives.

It was the second such win in the Laurens County circuit for Atlanta attorney Catherine Bernard, a conservative Republican who’s also a staunch civil libertarian. Late last year, another client of hers confessed to a jury that he had sold a small amount of marijuana to an insistent undercover cop. That client was cut loose after just 18 minutes of deliberation.

And this is no liberal soft-on-crime region. Donald Trump won the county 2-1.

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Bernard also helped get North Georgia authorities to drop charges against the parents of a 15-year-old whose parents allowed him to smoke marijuana to help combat severe seizures.

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Ultimately, what may have kept McCoy out of an orange jumpsuit was that his lawyer urged the jury to empower themselves. She told them they are not potted plants or an unthinking arm of government. They, in fact, are the government. She read to the jury a section from the Georgia Constitution that says, “The jury shall be the judges of the law and the facts.”

Bernard said the judge chided her for bringing that up, but it seems the words sank in.

The case started when police were called to McCoy’s mobile home four years ago. McCoy’s half-brother had allegedly attacked him with a stick and McCoy grabbed his .22 rifle, the one he uses to hunt squirrels, and shot his sibling in the shoulder, according to police.

Police found several potted plants in McCoy’s bedroom and tagged him with several charges, including aggravated assault and manufacturing marijuana, a felony that can bring 10 years. The case stalled in the system and McCoy decided to go to trial. Right before the trial, the state dropped the assault accusation but kept the marijuana felony charge. Prosecutors did not respond to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s requests for comment.

Bernard said McCoy was offered eight years’ probation, but chose to fight the case.

Javonnie McCoy, left, and lawyer Catherine Bernard celebrate a not guilty verdict, even though McCoy testified that he was growing marijuana, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (Photo by (Catherine Bernard via The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)) (Catherine Bernard via The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

During trial, McCoy decided to testify. He said his attorney told him, “Talk to them. They will connect with you.”

McCoy told jurors that 15 years ago he was mugged and beaten into a coma. He has suffered migraines and depression and ended up self-medicating with marijuana “because Zoloft turned me into a zombie.”

“Prosecutors tried to make it look so bad, that I was selling it. But I had nothing to hide,” McCoy said, explaining his decision to testify. “The jurors had their eyes on me. I had my eyes on them.”

“Marijuana makes you eat,” McCoy told the jury. “It made me feel calm. It made me relax. It helps with my pain.”

He is a man who lives by hustling -- painting, landscaping, selling fish and driving people to the store.

Ultimately, McCoy said, “We had a jury you could relate to. Truck drivers, mechanics, construction. People who worked. They saw I wasn’t bothering nobody. That’s what I believe they felt.”

Bernard said she doesn’t coach defendants before testifying because juries pick up on that. “I think they appreciated his honesty.”

People in Dublin have respect for the law, Bernard said. But this was about fairness, about properly using law enforcement resources.

“In America, we leave someone alone if they are not bothering somebody,” Bernard said. “A world where he needs to be dragged away by armed men and put in a cage is not a world where people want to live.”

She doesn’t like the term jury nullification. “It brings up a negative image. It’s simply part of being a jury. The jury judges the law and the facts.”

Denise de La Rue, a jury consultant not involved in this case, said, “Jurors are really interested in justice. There are often cases of no loss, no foul. There’s no real victim here.”

That’s pretty much what the jurors said.

A couple said the case presented to them by prosecutors was a mess because the lawyers had to avoid talking about the shooting. The jurors who spoke to the AJC never knew the missing charge involved a shooting.

Two of them said “second chances” also played heavily into their verdict.

Juror Mae Davis said, “He was believable. He wasn’t trying to make money. He had it to ease his health,” adding that she really has no problem with people using marijuana — “as long as they’re not around me.”

Juror Brian Loyd said of the verdict, “Sometimes good things happen to good people.”

Kenneth Thompson, who works in construction, said jurors liked that McCoy was “forthright.”

Ultimately, they decided the man didn’t deserve to get tossed into the slammer.

“If he’s disrupting the peace and dignity of the state, well, a lot of us said he wasn’t bothering anybody,” Thompson said.

This story was written by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Bill Torpy.

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