Federal prosecutors want to send two Maine men convicted of multiple charges in connection with the state’s most sophisticated marijuana growing operation back to prison now that an appellate court in Boston has denied them a new trial.
Attorneys for Malcolm French, 59, of Enfield and Rodney Russell, 57, of South Thomaston, who have been free since April 1 on $5,000 unsecured bail, are arguing that the men are too sick to return to prison and at greater risk for COVID-19 than other inmates.
Lawyers for French and Russell argued in the appeal that their clients were entitled to a retrial because a juror lied on her questionnaire about a family member’s 2003 conviction on marijuana possession and other charges. In October, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston rejected their arguments.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joel Casey, who prosecuted French and Russell, filed a motion to revoke their bail a month after their appeal was denied.
A hearing on the motion has not been set.
Attorneys for French argue in court documents that they qualify for “compassionate release” under the First Step Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 2018. Russell’s attorneys filed a motion Friday seeking his release under the same provision.
French, who suffers from asthma, has preliminarily been diagnosed with lymphoma cancer, which attacks the white blood cells, according to court documents. He wants to stay out of prison to receive medical treatment.
“French seeks compassionate release so that he can get the medical care necessary to prolong his life, not so that he can paint the town red,” said defense attorneys Jamesa Drake of Auburn and Thomas Hallett of Portland.
Russell has been diagnosed with heart disease, high blood pressure, cholesterol issues and a major depressive disorder, according to court documents. His back problems have grown worse since his release, and he has developed difficulty seeing.
Both men agreed to be on supervised release, home confinement and/or electronic monitoring if allowed to remain outside prison. To qualify for compassionate release, a judge must find there are “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for it. They include a terminal illness or serious medical condition and family circumstances. Compassionate release is also an option if an inmate is over the age of 65 with serious health deterioration and has served at least 10 years of his sentence.
U.S. District Judge John Woodcock, who presided over French and Russell’s trial and sentenced them, has ordered the U.S. Department of Probation and Pretrial Services to weigh in on whether the duo are eligible.
French and Russell were convicted by a jury in 2014 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.
Township 37 is located in Washington County near Wesley.
As police raided the property, the undocumented 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 on bail in April, 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.
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.
Three other men convicted in connection with the marijuana operation have served their sentences and were released prior to the pandemic.
Since the men were tried, the public’s attitude toward marijuana use has shifted. The recreational use of marijuna now is legal in 15 states and the District of Columbia and is legal for medical use in 35 states. Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill legalizing its use. The U.S. Senate is not expected to pass the legislation.
According to the Bureau of Prisons, 18,595 inmates, including those who have completed their sentences, have been placed in home confinement since March 26. It is not clear whether French and Russell’s release was included in those numbers since they were let out on a judge’s order and not by the prison system.