Medical Marijuana Trial Judge Recuses Himself For Alleged Bias


Rory Murray/OC Weekly

​Sentencing for medical marijuana defendants Joe Grumbine and Joe Byron — convicted of cannabis sales in relation to a pair of dispensaries in Long Beach, California and another in Garden Grove — has been delayed. In an unexpected, 11th-hour move, Long Beach Superior Court Judge Charles D. Sheldon removed himself from the case Wednesday morning, citing allegations of his biased behavior in the courtroom and admitting he made a serious error in sending a complimentary letter to the prosecutor prior to sentencing.

Judge Sheldon — who throughout the trial, put on one of the most unseemly displays of anti-marijuana bias in memory — denied the allegations, reports Nick Schou of OC Weekly. “The court is not biased in favor of any party or counsel,” he claimed, responding to a recusal motion by defense attorneys Christopher Glew and Allison Margolin. The recusal motion included a laundry list of Judge Sheldon’s objectionable statements. 

But Sheldon, 79, admitted that he had erred in sending a January 4 letter to Sally Thomas, head deputy of the Long Beach branch of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, in which he heaped simpering approbation, praising prosecutor Jodi Castano.
“Frankly, I made a mistake,” Judge Sheldon admitted. “I wasn’t thinking when I sent a commendatory letter to the district attorney.”

John Gilhooley/OC Weekly
Convicted defendants Joe Grumbine, left, and Joe Byron: Guilty on all counts

Having said that, the pot-hating judge just couldn’t stop himself from insouciantly adding, “I meant what I said in the letter.”
The judge’s stunning revelation “drew exclamations from many in the courtroom,” reports Tracy Manzer of the Long Beach Press Telegram
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” Judge Sheldon said.
​His recusal brought raucous applause, cheers and shouts from a courtroom overflowing with about 50 medical marijuana advocates who have rallied outside and inside the Long Beach Courthouse throughout the trial of Grumbine and Byron.
In said letter, Sheldon said he couldn’t remember the last time he was “moved to write a letter commending” a prosecutor, but he was “moved to do so” this time.
“Ms. Castano, despite operating in the courtroom, often full or almost full of persons overtly favoring the defense side, was unflappable, composed, steady, organized, and totally professional from beginning to end,” the smitten old coot, I mean the judge, gushed.

OC Weekly
Ace defense attorney Allison Margolin [swoon <3]

​Castano’s “extraordinary preparation and excellent meticulous and painstaking presentation of evidence was a pleasure to observe,” the judge’s unseemly love letter read. “In short, I just want you to know you chose the right lawyer to handle this difficult case.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Glew said. “But it was obvious from the start that Judge Sheldon was biased … he said from the very beginning there are no legal sales of marijuana of any kind.”
Grumbine and Byron were convicted December 21 on 13 felony counts including illegal sales of “narcotics,” grand theft, and filing false tax returns, after a three-week trial.
Supporters of the two Joes said the charges are nothing more than an attack by over-zealous police and prosecutors in violation of California’s medical marijuana law. They have also accused the authorities of fabricating evidence.
Grumbine and Byron were arrested in December of 2009 after police raided the three dispensaries, two in Long Beach and one in Garden Grove.
Defense attorneys Glew and Morgan had already prepared a recusal motion to disqualify the octogenarian Judge Sheldon before they knew about his letter.
After Judge Sheldon recused himself, Glew asked if that meant that the judge’s previous gag order against speaking to the media was now lifted. “I’m not making any other orders because of what I just said,” the judge responded. “I’m off the case.”
Though the trial judge has recused himself, the two convictions still stand. However, Glew and Margolin said they are preparing motions for a new trial, which will be heard in a new court, by Judge Joan Comparet-Cassani, on April 3.
Those motions will include arguments that Judge Sheldon’s bias denied Byron and Grumbine a fair trial, and will also cite juror misconduct, according to Glew. One juror, after the conviction, revealed that the jury used the Internet to look up the definition of a medical marijuana collective, even though they were told by the judge they couldn’t use any outside sources of information while deliberating the case.
Glew and Margolin initially opposed the appointment of Judge Comparet-Cassani, due to concern about her strict track record. But moments later, they withdrew their challenge of the venue.
Glew explained that the only other options left at the Long Beach Court would be even worse for the defense’s case. “We don’t have a lot of options for a fair trial in Long Beach,” Glew said.

Elect Steve Collett
Joe Grumbine (left) and Joe Byron wearing Solidarity Ribbons, meant to help communicate to the jury the support the two have when a room full of supporters have them on, including the defense attorneys.