Some of the plants seized by the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency from the Washington County pot farm run by Malcolm French and Rodney Russell. Credit: Courtesy of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency
Rodney Russell leaves federal court in Bangor in January 2014. A federal judge this week ordered the 57-year-old back to prison. Russell was convicted of helping to run Maine’s most sophisticated pot farm in Washington County. Credit: Kevin Bennett / BDN

A federal judge on Wednesday ordered a South Thomaston man convicted of helping to run Maine’s most sophisticated pot farm to return to prison.

Rodney Russell, 57, who helped manage the Washington County operation, had been free on bail for nearly a year as he awaited a ruling on his appeal, before the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his conviction in October.

U.S. District Judge John Woodcock this week denied Russell’s request to remain free on bail while he appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court and denied his motion for compassionate release due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Russell had claimed that his health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, cholesterol issues and a major depressive disorder, along with back and vision problems, put him at a greater risk of complications from the coronavirus than other inmates.

The judge rejected those arguments and ordered that Russell report by 2 p.m. Friday to the federal prison from which he was released in Devens, Massachusetts. He may renew his request for release later in his prison term. Russell was serving a sentence of 12 years and seven months when he was released. He has about five years left to serve, according to court documents.

Co-defendant Malcolm French, 59, of Enfield, who was convicted of running the Washington County marijuana operation using undocumented workers, remains free on bail.

Woodcock said in orders issued Wednesday that he is waiting for information on French’s health from his physicians before deciding if he will remain free or must complete his sentence.

Malcolm French and his wife, Barbara, leave federal court in Bangor in January 2014. French was convicted of running the Washington County marijuana farm. Credit: Kevin Bennett / BDN

French, who suffers from asthma, was tested last month for lymphatic cancer, which attacks the white blood cells, but test results were negative, according to court documents. He has since been diagnosed with having chronic fluid buildup in his lungs causing pain and shortness of breath.

He wants to stay out of prison to receive medical treatment. He 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 about six years.

Both men were released from prison on April 1, 2020, according to court documents. They were released on $5,000 unsecured bail and agreed to be on supervised release, home confinement or electronic monitoring if allowed to remain outside prison.

Woodcock granted their motions for release because it appeared more likely than not that the appellate court would grant French and Russell a new trial. Lawyers for the duo argued 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.

But in an unexpected decision, a three-judge panel found that Woodcock’s examination of the juror showed she had forgotten about or was unaware of the conviction, so it did not influence her during deliberations.

Attorneys for Russell and French argued in court documents that they qualify for “compassionate release” under the First Step Act passed by Congress in 2018. 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.

French and Russell were convicted by a jury in January 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.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized Malcolm French’s medical diagnosis.