Marijuana plants

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Two Maine men convicted of multiple charges in connection with the state’s most sophisticated marijuana growing operation have been released from federal prison, in part due to the coronavirus epidemic.

Malcolm French, 58, of Enfield and Rodney Russell, 56, of South Thomaston were released April 1 on $5,000 unsecured bail after their attorneys successfully argued both inmates had underlying health issues that made them more susceptible to COVID-19 because of poor social distancing protocols in prisons and jails.

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In 2014, a jury convicted the men of operating an illegal pot plantation from which the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency seized 2,943 mature marijuana plants. The farm was discovered on Sept. 22, 2009 in a 10-acre swamp on 22,000 acres of land in Township 37 owned by Haynes Timberland Inc. French was part owner of the company.

As police raided the property, the undocumented Hispanic workers who tended the plants and lived on the farm fled and a supervisor set the camp ablaze in an attempt to destroy evidence. A Corinna businessman hid the workers overnight before they were taken out of state.

Russell and French had been incarcerated since the jury’s verdict was announced, when they were ordered to be held without bail while awaiting sentencing, which took place a year later.

Before his release, French was serving a sentence of 14 years and seven months at the Federal Correctional Institution in Loretto, Pennsylvania, located about 75 miles east of Pittsburgh. He was due to be released in six years.

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Russell was serving a sentence of 12 years and seven months at the Federal Medical Center in Devens, Massachusetts, located outside Boston on a former U.S. Army Base. He was due to be released in 2025.

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Federal prosecutors declined Friday to comment on the case due to the pending appeal.

Portland attorney Thomas Hallett, who represents French, did not immediately return a request for comment Friday.

Rodney Russell, through his attorney William Maddox of Rockland, maintained his innocence.

As of April 9, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons said it has released 886 prisoners to home confinement who were not convicted of violent crimes, are not considered to be a danger to the community and have risk factors for the coronavirus as outlined by the Center for Disease Control. It was not clear if French and Russell were included in that count because their release was ordered by a federal judge rather than by the prison bureau.

In allowing the men to be released, U.S. District Judge John Woodcock cited the likelihood that a higher court would rule in favor of their pending appeal because of their vulnerability to COVID-19.

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“Simply put, if it is likely — as it appears to be — that the First Circuit will vacate Mr. French and Mr. Russell’s convictions and order a new trial, and the First Circuit’s delay in deciding the appeal is related to the current COVID-19 crisis, they should not be in prison awaiting the resolution of the COVID-19 crisis,” the judge said.

A panel of judges in Boston was set to hear arguments in their appeal this month but it was postponed due to restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Lawyers for French and Russell maintain their clients are entitled to a new trial because a juror lied on her questionnaire about a family member’s conviction in 2003 of marijuana possession and other charges.

The men will remain free on bail until Woodcock issues a subsequent order. They are residing in their homes on probation.

Three other men convicted in connection with the marijuana operation have served their sentences and been released.

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