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Verdict In, Jury Still Out on Prop. 215

The cops and prosecutors got their man: Marvin Chavez is facing prison. To hear them tell it, a drug dealer has been taken off the streets. At moments like these, the rest of us are supposed to feel good because our law enforcement people have used their cunning and muscle to nail a criminal--especially one like Chavez, who, according to the prosecutor, ran “a very sophisticated marijuana-selling business.”

Or did he?

I’d be surprised if the jurors who convicted him Thursday, the police, the judge, or even the prosecutors--really believe that.

I’d be surprised if any really believe that Chavez is a threat to anyone.

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The prosecutors and cops will say they only wanted to remove Marvin Chavez from society; I suspect they’re trying to stamp out a social movement toward liberalizing marijuana usage.

They won’t say that, because it butts heads with the public’s will: In 1996, California voters by a 56%-44% margin approved Proposition 215, which enables patients to grow and use marijuana for medical reasons. The sale of it remains illegal.

District attorneys across the state opposed Proposition 215, and Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates chaired the statewide anti-215 campaign. At the time, Gates said, “We see this purely as a legalization effort. They want a crack in the door. Once marijuana is there, then why not decriminalize heroin or whatever else?”

Against that backdrop, the muscle of the Orange County legal establishment set up an undercover operation against Chavez, 43, who had made no secret of a “club” he headed that provided marijuana to people who said they were in pain and could support that claim with a doctor’s letter.

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Using undercover agents as part of its case, the district attorney’s office brought nine counts of selling marijuana against Chavez and a 10th count of transporting it by mail. Chavez argued that in all cases, he provided the marijuana for medical reasons and only took payments as “donations” to finance his organization.

On Thursday, an Orange County jury convicted him on two felony counts of selling marijuana but reduced charges to misdemeanors on five of the other seven sales counts and tossed out the other two altogether. It also found him guilty of the felony mail charge. Chavez faces up to seven years in prison on the convictions.

The verdict raises puzzling questions.

If the jury agreed with prosecutor Carl Armbrust that Chavez was a drug dealer in disguise, why not convict him of all charges of selling? Conversely, if it believed Chavez was acting out of compassion and truly taking only monetary donations, why convict on any sales counts?

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The answers no doubt lie in the nuances of each transaction, but it must be worrisome to law enforcement that Chavez was acquitted on most of the serious charges, even when testimony showed he gave marijuana and received money in exchange.

I wonder if the jurors were swayed by the daily courtroom presence of 20 or so Chavez supporters. If Chavez were a drug seller, they symbolically represented his “buyers.” What jurors saw were people in wheelchairs, people with arm braces, people on crutches, and people, like Chavez, wearing back braces.

One of them was Don Lawrence, a 59-year-old Garden Grove man who brought his own lawn chair and cushion on which to sit. “Marijuana helps me tolerate this chronic pain I have,” Lawrence told me after the trial. Chavez has supplied him with marijuana, and Lawrence said he’s made donations to Chavez. “He made the point that if I couldn’t afford it, I would get the medicine one way or another,” Lawrence said, adding that it never crossed his mind that the arrangement was improper.

The trial marked a swan song for Armbrust, who is retiring after 26 years in the Orange County district attorney’s office. He said he’s convinced Chavez is a drug dealer using Proposition 215 as a prop.

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When I asked why he couldn’t convince the jury of that on all counts, Armbrust said, “I could have done a better job on that,” but also thinks jurors felt sorry for Chavez. Armbrust disputed the suggestion Chavez was targeted as a way to thwart Proposition 215 momentum.

“He’s no different than anyone else who is peddling marijuana,” Armbrust said. “Every time we find one, we arrest them.”

Prosecutors Must Feel Winds of Change

Chavez attorney James M. Silva said the several instances in which the jury reduced charges were significant. “That means they believed that he was not receiving the money for marijuana, but that it was to support the organization that was set up to care for them,” Silva said.

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I’m disappointed, but only because I wanted perfect clarity from the jury. Did it think Chavez was a con man, or did it believe that he provided marijuana only to people he thought were in serious pain?

Had they settled on the latter, people like Brad Gates would have a big problem on their hands. Had this decidedly middle-aged Orange County jury sided with Chavez, Gates and those fighting initiatives like Proposition 215 couldn’t have helped but feel the winds of change at their necks.

But given that they wanted a knockout of Chavez and got only a split decision, you’ve got to think that maybe they already do.

Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at the Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to dana.parsons@latimes.com

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