Judge Charles D. Sheldon Is Captain Kangaroo
At press time, the verdict was still out in the trial of Joe Byron and Joe Grumbine, the one-time Weekly cover boys (see "Buds," June 9) and former owners of a pair of Long Beach cannabis clubs as well as Garden Grove's Unit D collective. Both were charged with several counts of selling pot at their dispensaries, which were raided two years ago this month; additionally, Byron, owner of Long Beach eatery Egg Heaven, was charged with tax evasion and electricity theft. The fate of the two men remains unclear. So does something else at stake in this trial: the fate of medical marijuana in the state of California.
Assuming the two Joes are convicted for doing something—providing pot to qualified patients in return for cash—that hundreds of other collective operators are doing, including numerous city-permitted clubs in Long Beach, this will have far less to do with the actual facts of the case than with the overwhelmingly apparent bias of the man who presided over the trial, a 79-year-old jurist with white hair, a bushy mustache and a gravelly voice reminiscent of a True Grit-era John Wayne: Charles D. Sheldon, presiding judge of Long Beach Superior Court's Department K.
That letter, as another Long Beach judge once drew unintended laughs for explaining, stands for that lovable, bouncy rodent from Down Under: the kangaroo. Get it? Kangaroo Court? Where all defendants are presumed guilty until convicted and marched off to prison or the firing squad?
It'd be funny if it weren't true.
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Sheldon's intense dislike of the defendants and their lawyers, Allison Margolin and Christopher Glew, became obvious early in the case through his pretrial rulings. First, he denied the defendants the right to mention medical marijuana in their defense, much less the fact that California state law allows patients to smoke marijuana for medical reasons and to establish collectives to grow and distribute the plants. Only a last-minute ruling by the California Court of Appeal forced Sheldon to allow such a defense.
However, Hizzonor immediately refused a motion by the defense team to delay the trial for a week so they could restructure their case and contact previously off-limits witnesses, gruffly insisting the trial start the following morning. Things only got worse from there. When the prosecution argued its case, Sheldon ruled against almost every defense objection, and he allowed prosecutors to put more than 30 witnesses on the stand. He later limited each defendant to exactly six witnesses each.
Despite the lopsided nature of things, the prosecution didn't really amount to much—at least in terms of actual crimes. In its essence, the case boiled down to a dozen supposed "sales" made to undercover police officers who admitted to the jury they weren't allowed inside the club until they could provide a valid California driver's license and a doctor's note allowing them to smoke marijuana for medical reasons.
Given that state law allowed the cops to obtain those doctors' notes and to obtain cannabis to treat their supposed ailment—insomnia, as one cop sarcastically informed the jury—it was hard to see exactly where a crime had occurred. Indeed, the defendants happily acknowledged the so-called sales had taken place, but, they pointed out, their cash-strapped patients were habitually handed free cannabis, food drives and wheelchair donations were common events, and Grumbine drove to disabled patients' homes to help them cultivate their own marijuana, even installing wheelchair ramps and grab-bars at their houses.
The evidence for any compelling crime may have been rather mundane, but the courtroom drama was anything but forgettable. For reasons only he knows, but which the California Commission on Judicial Performance might be well-advised to contemplate, Sheldon allowed prosecutors to place a screen on the left side of the courtroom. This effectively blocked the jury from seeing the audience, which consisted overwhelmingly of current and former patients of the three collectives, mostly elderly people and folks in wheelchairs.
At one point, frustrations at the defense table got the better of things, and a juror handed Sheldon a note asking him to admonish Glew and Margolin to not roll their eyes. On another occasion, citing Sheldon's bias, Glew attempted to argue for a mistrial; Sheldon responded by declaring a break in the proceedings. In full view of the jury, he took off his robe and began to march out of the courtroom
"Your honor, if I could just finish my sentence," Glew said.
Sheldon became enraged. "We're not talking about this," he bellowed, jabbing his finger in the air as he stormed out. "You're out of line!"
Later, Sheldon interrupted a clearly intimidated Margolin to tell her that she was doing a "disservice" to her clients by objecting too frequently, warning her that any further attempts would be futile. When Margolin protested, Sheldon cut her off. "You'll make your objections, and I'll overrule them," he snarled.
When it came time for Margolin and Glew to present their case, Sheldon seemed to have much more interest in sustaining objections, seeing as they were now coming from the prosecution table. This trend continued well into closing arguments, when Sheldon overruled each defense objection during prosecutor Jodi Castano's speech. For example, when Castano told the jury the law doesn't allow for collectives to sell marijuana at a profit nor does it provide for patients to obtain cannabis via over-the-counter sales, Margolin repeatedly objected on the grounds this statement misstated the law, but Sheldon repeatedly ignored her.
When Castano objected roughly half a dozen times to Margolin's closing speech on the same grounds, Sheldon repeatedly sustained her objections, referring to Margolin's arguments as "improper" and ruling they be stricken from the record. In fact, Sheldon had to ask the courtroom reporter to read back Margolin's statements each time Castano objected because he wasn't even listening to Margolin's speech. Typically, judges avoid this kind of intervention by simply reminding the jury that nothing the attorneys say during closing arguments should be considered as evidence, but Sheldon either forgot to say this or didn't see the point.
Speaking of forgetfulness, during more than a week of courtroom proceedings, Sheldon never admonished jurors to not speak about the case with one another or anyone else—an amazing oversight. Because of a gag rule Sheldon imposed on the lawyers in the case, Glew, Margolin and Castano are prohibited from speaking with reporters.
But speaking in the hallway shortly before the trial ended, Grumbine laughed nervously as he tried to make sense of the case. "It's a personal vendetta or something," he remarked. "Maybe it's just a dream, or we stepped into an alternate reality."
The jury began deliberating Dec. 20. If convicted, Byron and Grumbine face several years in state prison.
This article appeared in print as "Captain Kangaroo: Inside the biased, anti-medical-marijuana courtroom of Long Beach Judge Charles D. Sheldon."
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