Even before Steven Sutherland's conviction for felony marijuana possession earlier this year, the 59-year-old St. Clair resident was not a healthy man. He'd already been diagnosed with with chronic heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and given supplemental oxygen to treat his sleep apnea.
Sutherland's health, however, is now in the hands of the Missouri prison system. In April, after years of delays, a jury took less than twenty minutes to convict Sutherland
on felony charges for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. One month later, a judge sentenced him to ten years in prison.
Sutherland does have a prior criminal record, a felony conviction in 1996 for marijuana possession. In the eyes of the court, the two-decade old charge made Sutherland a "prior drug offender," thereby enhancing the possible prison sentence to that of a Class B felony, the level usually seen in violent crimes like armed robbery or certain sexual assaults.
The lengthy sentence, says Sutherland's public defender, Matt Huckeby, "is outside the norm, and unusual in my nine years as a public defender."
The case began in January 2015, when the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department raided Sutherland's home in the rural town of St. Clair, about an hour's drive southwest of St. Louis. In Sutherland's basement, deputies recovered about 110 grams of marijuana and 21 marijuana plants, according to a probable cause statement filed at the time
In a phone interview from the Fulton Reception and Diagnostic Center, Sutherland recalls, "When they showed up on my front porch, I was smoking a bowl and drinking a cup of coffee. Then [an officer] grabbed me on the throat, swung me around. I had a steel brace on my leg."
Sutherland claims he's been self medicating by using marijuana for decades, a regimen that included obtaining a medical marijuana card from California. In fact, he claims that he'd been ordering California cannabis products through the mail until a few years ago when he could no longer afford it. He turned to a home-grow operation, which eventually brought the deputies to his front door.
At the time, Sutherland maintains he was only growing weed for his own medicinal use, and he suggests that it was a would-be customer who vengefully directed the cops to the grow operation in the basement.
The case dragged on for years, with delays mounting as Sutherland's health deteriorated. After missing multiple court dates due to hospital visits, newly elected Franklin County Prosecutor Matthew Becker took over the case in 2019.
By then, of course, Missouri voters had legalized medical marijuana
. Huckeby, Sutherland's defense attorney, argued in a pre-sentencing motion that the nationwide reform of marijuana laws and the state's own courts — which sentenced more than half of all drug possession cases to probation, not jail time — supported leniency in Sutherland's case.
"Simply put," Huckeby wrote in the motion, "the movement of citizens in Missouri... is indisputably away from criminal punishment for marijuana."
By comparison, Huckeby noted that the maximum sentence that Sutherland faced, fifteen years, was the same given to those convicted of voluntary manslaughter or second-degree rape.
Beyond the disproportionate sentence, there was reason to believe that Sutherland's claim of medicinal use wasn't a smokescreen for a drug operation. Memos written by Sutherland's doctors — which he shared with RFT —
described numerous serious medical conditions, including brain disorders described as "likely progressive" and affecting "cognitive ability." According to one memo, Sutherland's various illnesses required the care of both a cardiologist and neurologist, as well as "chronic medications which require long-term maintenance and surveillance."
In a subsequent letter entered into Sutherland's case file prior to the June sentencing, a neurologist affiliated with Mercy Hospital disclosed that she'd been treating Sutherland for seizures since 2017 and that she'd prescribed "multiple seizure medication without much benefit."
The doctor added, "I believe medical use of marijuana may help his seizure[s]."
In court, however, Franklin County's prosecutors focused on the size of the bust uncovered in Sutherland's home.
"People shouldn’t get the impression that this was a guy with some joints,” Becker told the Missourian in May
. "This was not a marginal case."
For Sutherland, though, his own health appears to have been pushed to the margins. In his remarks to RFT
, he complained that prison staff confiscated a key component that fed oxygen to his CPAP machine, which he needs to ensure that he keeps breathing at night. Later, medical staff put him on a constant oxygen feed — the tube connected to Sutherland's nose is visible in his prison mugshot — but that means he has to endure an ill-fitting combination of oxygen tube and the CPAP mask if he wants to sleep at night.
Prison, though, is where Sutherland deserves to be, said Franklin County Assistant Prosecutor Matthew Houston in an interview with RFT. While Sutherland deserves "appropriate medical care," the prosecutor noted that it was the judge, Michael Wright, who made the decision to sentence the convicted man to prison instead of probation.
Then again, it was Houston, who represented Franklin County during Sutherland's trial, who recommended to the judge that the defendant deserved a sentence of "no less than twelve years."
Of Sutherland's health, Houston said, "I don't know that that was considered at sentencing or not."
But Houston is certain that the circumstances of Sutherland's marijuana use had a lot to do with the way the case played out — as well as the fact that Sutherland was allegedly arrested with guns in his home, weapons that, as a prior felon, Sutherland is not legally allowed to posses. In 2015, prosecutors filed additional felony charges against him that carried decades of potential prison time. A trial was scheduled for October 2019.
Last week, prosecutors dropped the pending felony charges — and Sutherland agreed to drop his appeal of the conviction. No appeal means no possibility of a release from prison while that appeal was adjudicated. Generally, inmates must serve around 30 percent of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole. Sutherland is afraid he won't make it that long.
"This has been a nightmare," he says.
Editor's note: The story was updated after publication to include comments from the Franklin County Assistant Prosecutor Matthew Houston.
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected]
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