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Jury clears NH man of felony pot charge, use was part of Rastafarian religion

A Belknap County Superior Court jury cleared a Barnstead resident of a felony drug charge last week, siding with a defense lawyer who encouraged the jury to nullify the verdict on the grounds that the marijuana use was part of his Rastafarian religion.

The decision on Thursday cleared Doug Darrell, 59, a piano tuner and woodworker, of manufacture of marijuana, a Class B felony that carries a maximum prison sentence of 3 1/2 to seven years.

Under the principle of jury nullification, a jury can find a defendant innocent, even if prosecutors have proved guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

&#';It's a really important development,&#'; said Concord defense lawyer Mark Sisti, who represented Darrell. Legislatures around the country are rethinking marijuana laws, and most New Hampshire residents have no problem with moderate use of the drug by responsible adults, he said.

&#';We're moving along a path we should have been on years ago,&#'; he said. Key to the case was a decision by Superior Court Judge James O'Neill to instruct the jury about nullification, he said.

Another factor in the case could have been the presence of a Free State Project participant on the jury.

Juror Cathleen Converse of Barnstead said several members of the jury were uncomfortable with the case.

&#';Mr. Darrell seemed to be the only victim here,&#'; said Converse, a retiree who moved to New Hampshire in 2004 from South Carolina. &#';Almost everyone said this just shouldn't have happened to these peaceful people.&#';

Rastafarianism is closely associated with reggae music, dreadlocks and Caribbean culture. According to the website rastafarian.com, it arose in Jamaica in the 1930s and promotes the spiritual use of marijuana and the rejection of Western society.

A Rastafarian since the 1980s, Darrell has no criminal history and has been married to his wife for 38 years, Sisti said. They have four grown children who are successful in their fields.

The couple use the marijuana plant more often for tea and medicinal rubs than to smoke it, he said.

&#';This is the real deal here. This isn't some kid who listened to Bob Marley last week and decided to be Rastafarian,&#'; Sisti said. Darrell refused several plea bargains because they would require him to plead guilty to something his religions deems as sacramental, Sisti said.

He said Darrell was arrested after a National Guard helicopter, working on a grid with New Hampshire State Police, spotted 15 marijuana plants in July 2009.

At one point, the pilot was 300 feet off the ground, he said, citing testimony in an earlier suppression hearing.

Belknap County Attorney Melissa Countway Guldbrandsen said she brought the charge against Darrell because he was breaking the law. It wouldn't matter whether a defendant were an active drug dealer or someone like Darrell, Guldbrandsen would still bring the charge, she said.

Like Sisti, she said a key to the case was the judge's decision to instruct the jury about nullification. She was surprised that Judge O'Neill gave the instruction, which lent credence to Sisti's argument in favor of jury nullification.

&#';I don't see it as being that significant in changing our practice and the practice of the court,&#'; Guldbrandsen said about the verdict. In January, a new law goes into effect that codifies current practice, which permits a lawyer to argue for nullification.

Sisti said O'Neill had earlier rejected the defense lawyer's argument for an instruction on nullification. But after Sisti made it part of his case and the prosecution argued against it, O'Neill accepted Sisti's request for an instruction.

Sisti said O'Neill's decision was courageous.

&#';This isn't a get-out-of-jail-free card,&#'; Sisti cautioned about nullification. &#';It's just another valid instruction that should go to a jury in the appropriate case.&#';

mhayward@unionleader.com

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