My grandfather was a sharecropper — otherwise I would have been as ignorant of it as the pot pharmas are who practice it today. It's a holdover from feudalism, established originally in the Southeast US by carpetbaggers, and perpetrated wherever isolated groups of people did not have to pay much heed to formal and legal niceties. In my grandfather’s day, sharecropping was the practice in remote Utah; today it's prevalent in the Emerald Triangle.
Basically, it works like this: A sharecropper moves onto a property and raises a crop, then shares the cash fruits of the crop with the landowner, the lion’s share, of course, going to the landowner. If the farm is busted, the landowner will say he's never seen the serf before. "Musta been a trespass gro."
As recently as last year in Northern Mendocino and Southern Humboldt Counties, the going rate for latter day serfdom was two-thirds to the landowner, one-third to the sharecropper. The sharecropper usually pays some rent — for the sake of appearances — and pays all the expenses related to the crop, not to mention utilities, and his or her own maintenance. The usual pretense is that the landowner is doing the sharecropper a big favor, sharing his bounty with the landless.
David Jeffreys found himself on the short end of a sharecropping arrangement on Branscomb Road outside Laytonville where he was busted with over 500 marijuana plants. Defense attorney Keith Faulder argued that Jeffreys was only staying at the property to do some construction work, and to prove it he briefly put the landowner on the stand, Jason Smith.
Smith is a well-to-do businessman with holdings in Humboldt and Mendocino counties, including Angelo’s Pizza parlors in Eureka and Laytonville. Faulder was apparently certain Smith would do the right thing by Jeffreys, could be depended on to say that Jeffreys was present on the Smith place to do construction work — something other than marijuana work. But Smith instead did the right thing by himself and pled the Fifth.
During Jeffreys' preliminary hearing earlier this year, Jeffreys’ defense had been that he’d been doing construction work at Smith’s property, specifically building an overhang on the doublewide trailer which is the main residence on the property. At that time, Judge John Behnke had not been convinced that Jeffreys was present only as a carpenter, “Building contractor” being so common a cover for pot growers in the Emerald Triangle that it's almost a joke, and Jeffreys had very little in the way of witnesses to substantiate his claim to being one. Various laborers who had helped with the overhang were unavailable to testify. Jeffreys had been paid in cash.
The judge felt that “due diligence” in establishing that Jeffreys was present simply to do some carpentry was lacking. So Jeffreys was bound over for trial on the pot bust.
Defense attorney Faulder had already explained to the jury that Jeffreys had suffered a head injury on a construction site and still suffered from it. “I’m not asking for sympathy, just understanding,” and that Jeffreys was in no mental condition to take the stand, and if he did take the stand, a great deal of understanding and patience would be required of the jurors.
“Someone was cultivating marijuana there,” Faulder conceded. “No doubt about it. But Mr. Jeffreys lives in Eureka and had come down to Laytonville to help with the lighting and stage set up for the Gaia Festival at the Black Oak Ranch. He’s disabled from his brain injury, but still very competent at what he does, and he was staying at the property on Branscomb Road belonging to his friend, Jason Smith, so he would have a place to sleep and shower and fix his meals.”
On July 24th, Jeffreys came in from work at the Gaia Festival to find that law enforcement had been at Smith’s property and had confiscated Jeffreys’ tax records, among other things, and raising suspicions that a mere contractor ordinarily doesn't haul his tax files to work sites.
“Mr. Jeffreys was very cooperative with law enforcement,” Faulder said. “He had even helped Sgt. Bruce Smith capture a fugitive from Texas who had killed his own father. So my client emailed the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office to find out what was going on, and they never even answered his email.”
What law enforcement did was go back and arrest Jeffreys where they also found a bottle of pineapple juice in the grow room. Jeffreys admitted he drank pineapple juice, so the cops were pretty sure he was the guy who had been watering the plants, even though Jeffreys said he didn’t have a key to the locked grow room.
A bottle of pineapple juice was about all they had on Jeffreys, but the cops felt it was conclusive.
The trial devolved into a discussion about the kinds of marijuana being grown on Smith's property. There was Bubba Kush (Mendo Purple, as it’s known in Humboldt) and O.G. (Old Gangsta, a traditional Humboldt strain), which the investigating officer, Deputy James Wells, said were both known to be grown for the illegal — which is to say, the recreational-commercial market. Faulder got sucked into this digression (to my mind) and repeatedly asked — or tried to ask, over DA David Eyster’s objections and Deputy Wells’ evasions — whether or not these same strains were not equally popular at legal dispensaries.
This diversion took up a good many hours and I noted that the jurors seemed to be making shopping lists and otherwise drifting off to inattention, as each strain was described as to its color and odor, and the effects one was asserted to have both medicinally and euphorically, complete with citations of the supposed advantages of one over the other.
Then the line of inquiry went into prices.
As most readers already know, this reporter, himself a sharecropper on the AVA's ruthless journalistic estate, took a sabbatical to work as a field hand for a sharecropper on a grow in Humboldt two years ago (back when Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey was flying around in the Discovery Channel’s little black chopper — they flew over me at least twice that fall) — and that both Bubba Kush and O.G. had been jostled out of vogue by newer strains on both the medical and the commercial market, even back then. It was all old hat, to say the least. Not only were these types of weed sunk in nostalgia — if not oblivion — but the prices attested to were ancient history. In short, nobody with $3200 would spend it on a pound of Mendo Purple or Old Gangsta, contrary to what Deputy Wells believed. Even the fabulous new strains were going for about half of that — $2000, tops! I wondered if the deputy knew what he was talking about, even though the court had accepted him as an expert witness. In fact, testimony had been heard in this very courtroom — read from text messages on buyers’ cell phones — that nobody wanted any O.G. or Mendo Purple any more.
At last Judge Behnke let the jury go to lunch. When the jury was out of ear shot, defense attorney Faulder said he was going to call a surprise witness.
DA Eyster objected.
Judge Behnke said he’d consider the surprise witness.
Jason Smith, the Branscomb Road property owner, was in the room! Smith was certainly no old gangsta. He was the new model, the bright young mover and shaker, imperious and self-assured.
Omar Figueroa, Smith's attorney, announced, “Mr. Smith is here, your honor, ready to take the stand.”
Judge Behnke said, “I’m not gonna call Mr. Smith, I’ve decided.”
“In that case,” Faulder said, “I’m sorry I subpoenaed him, your honor. But I don’t wanna waive the issue.”
“Uh-huh. I see,” Behnke said. "In that case let me take a few seconds to consider…”
“Judge,” Eyster said, “I object.”
“I’ll only ask three or four questions,” Faulder added. “Maybe five.”
The judge clapped his palm to his forehead and studied some pages in a law tome. At last he took off his glasses and said, “I don’t think it’s necessary, but let’s do it.”
Mr. Smith sauntered up to the stand, took the oath, and made himself comfortable.
Faulder said, “Do you know David Jeffreys?”
Smith said, “I would like to assert my rights and privileges under the Fifth Amendment.”
“If this isn’t some trumped-up sort of thing,” Behnke said, “I’ll have to ask him to step down.”
“He’s the only witness that can clear the charges against my client,” Faulder said.
Smith was already on his way out the door as Judge Behnke concluded, “The witness, Mr. Smith, was mentioned in the police report as the property owner, and there seems to be a judicial immunity problem with his willingness to testify. I note that he is separately charged with the same charges as Mr. Jeffreys on an adjacent property… so that case is also here… but it seems obvious that if Smith were to testify it would be difficult to circumscribe how he could provide links in the chain for the DA to prosecute the case against him.”
The judge read some case law on compulsory testimony, then resumed:
“To immunize a witness is in the prosecutorial realm. But even with the DA’s consent, I’d decline to do so, because Jeffreys could say the same thing if he chose take the stand… So the bottom line is, I’m not granting it. That’s all I have to say: Motion denied.”
Faulder said, “It denies my client the right to call witnesses in his own defense, your honor.”
Behnke said, “That’s the lay of the land, Mr. Faulder; that’s the law; and the decision is the right decision — although I do realize the consequences.”
Faulder went off to confer with DA Eyster and begged for the best deal he could get for Jeffreys, the jury went home, and once again the landed gentry had shewed their dominion over sharecroppers, just like in feudal times.
The lord of the land, Squire Smith, will pay his 11470.2 fees to the DA — a cost of doing business — and Jeffreys the serf, having spent the last of his limited resources — and then some on attorney fees and pot penalties, will probably go to jail for a few months.
The only way Smith would exonerate Jeffreys was if Smith was granted immunity for his other grows, so why not cut his losses and let the sharecropper — or carpenter, or whatever he was — take the fall for the 500+ plants on that property? Hell, Smith has plenty of other grows, both in Humboldt and Mendocino County, but sharecropping has never been about magnanimity.