Last week, Nathan Johnson was found guilty on two felony charges regarding cannabis: manufacturing and possession with intent to distribute. He was sentenced to five years for each charge, for a total of 10 years. The charges stemmed from a 2019 raid of a home outside Hartwell. Hart County Sheriff’s Office reported at the time that $200,000 worth of cannabis had been confiscated from Johnson’s grow house.
Against the advice of friends and Peachtree NORML, but consistent with his own convictions, Nathan opted to represent himself.
“Nathan’s great error, if there was one, was his faith in the fairness of the judicial system,” said Robert Cartee, Deputy Director of Peachtree NORML, who was familiar with the case. “He really believed that the system would treat him fairly, hear his evidence, and reach a just verdict. Unfortunately, drug laws and those who enforce them are as far from ‘fair’ as can be imagined.”
The judge suppressed nearly all the evidentiary exhibits he wished to use in his defense.
Nathan’s best bet on the second and last day of his trial was jury nullification – invoking the process by which Georgia jurors serve as judge no just of the facts of an individual case, but also a judge of the law. If jurors believe the law itself is unjust, they have the option to nullify charges and set a defendant free. Nathan was warned by prosecutors if he referenced this provision of the Georgia Constitution, the prosecutor would ask for immediate mistrial. Such accountability is not welcomed by those who believe the system should work only for them.
During the first day of trial, Nathan was offered no less than four separate plea deals: two before the trial began, one a lunch, and another at the end of the first day. The prosecutor also dropped two of the five charges Nathan faced, just hours before trial. Nathan viewed these offers as promising, perhaps an attempt to hedge against loss, but ultimately chose to seek exoneration.
The final plea offer would have sentenced Nathan to ten years’ probation, under Georgia’s “First Offender Status.” Instead, just hours later, he was sentenced to 10 years in custody. The “trial penalty” in this case was transparent and hideous: Nathan did not become more of a threat to the public in those hours between plea offer and sentence. The judge and prosecutor stole ten years of his life for the audacity of insisting on a jury trial. Nathan’s stubborn defense of his position incensed the judge, who punished him not for the original grow operation (which prosecutors were willing to plead out) but for exercising his 6th amendment rights.
Nathan insisted on challenging the constitutionality of cannabis prohibition, not just his individual circumstances. He was confident in the outcome, believing that most Georgia jurors, like most Georgians, did not believe people should be in jail for cannabis.
Because he didn’t take a plea, if Georgia ever overturns or clears cannabis convictions, Nathan will be eligible. Offered “first offender” status, Nathan said he would rather go to prison and die.
That was not bluster or bravado. Given his current health conditions, Nathan is very likely to die while still under state supervision.
Nathan’s co-defendant, Melissa Roebuck, was charged and will be tried separately. She has been assigned a public defender.
Commissary funds can be sent to Nathan Johnson at: team3.inmatecanteen.com.
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