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United States v. Joe Fortt

posted Jan 28, 2013, 4:37 PM by The Editor   [ updated Feb 25, 2013, 2:33 AM ]

Joe Fortt Sentenced to 21 Months
by Vanessa Nelson
Monday, 05 March 2007

FRESNO, CA -- Freshly released from the hospital, a demonstrably ill Joseph Fortt was brought by wheelchair to a federal courtroom for sentencing yesterday.

The former Bakersfield dispensary owner sat hunched and frail at the side of his attorney, who immediately asked the judge to observe his client's physical condition and consider a slight reduction in the recommended sentence.

Fortt, who pled guilty to charges related to his cultivation of medical cannabis, was set to receive a sentence equivalent to time already spent in jail.

But there was a problem with that plan -- Fortt's time served was still six weeks shy of the recommended 21 month sentence. Upholding that sentence, defense attorney Daniel Harralson argued, would mean sending a dangerously ill inmate back into conditions that have been shown to negatively impact his health. "Not to criticize Fresno County Jail, but he does need better facilities," Harralson said of his client yesterday.

Fortt, who suffers from a terminal diagnosis, has undergone a drastic deterioration of health during his time in jail. Active and energetic at the time of his arrest, Fortt was soon ravaged by what he described as inhumanely cold jail temperatures and shockingly unsanitary conditions.

"The floor is infested with worms that grow into flying insects and inhabit the housing unit with us," Fortt wrote in an evocative letter describing Fresno County Jail. "The commodes fill up to the top with feces and then overflow, creating a raw sewage hazard that is dangerous for anyone's health."

Nearly a year ago, Fortt sent a detailed report of the jail's code violations to a long list of regulatory agencies and prison activist organizations.

Some of the oversight agencies responded to say that the facility had passed its most recent inspection, while others wrote to Fortt that the jail was currently taking steps towards full compliance.

In June 2006, the California Corrections Standards Authority penned its response. "The latest inspection report indicated on-going minor repair issues, including plumbing related, for all facilities," wrote field representative Ronald Bertrand. "Plumbing issues are an on-going repair issue in the jail and any repair issues are addressed as they are brought to the attention of maintenance staff."

The prison activist groups sent letters suggesting that Fortt work with other inmates to file a class action lawsuit against the jail.

But Fortt quickly became too sick to organize much of anything.

At the beginning of February 2007, he was taken from the jail to the intensive care unit at Fresno's University Medical Center. He had contracted pneumonia, and his case was so dire that it took nearly a month of hospitalization for him to stabilize enough to be able to attend his own sentencing hearing yesterday.

By shaving just a few weeks off the recommended sentence, Harralson argued to the judge, Fortt would be spared additional suffering at the facility where he had become deathly ill. With the reduced sentence, Fortt could go directly into the custody of immigration authorities, who would hold him until his deportation to Canada was finalized.

Six weeks was a lot to ask of the prosecution, however, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen Servatius went on record against any change to the sentence, no matter how slight.

"The government would oppose a reduction, your honor," Servatius declared, pausing briefly to flip through her files. "The defendant's sentence is already far below the 15 year term he would have served if convicted."

Still slouched in his wheelchair, Fortt had just one last chance to affect his fate and influence the judge. He was given the opportunity to address the court.

"I need to go somewhere where I can get my medicines," he pleaded with earnest effort.

It was not the first time the defendant had asked for access to herbal remedies like ginseng and aloe vera, medicines he claims are responsible for the good health he enjoyed before incarceration. All requests for permission have fallen on deaf ears, and this time was no exception. The court simply paused at his request, waiting quietly to see if he would say more.

Fortt continued, quivering and saying simply, "I'm afraid I'll have a relapse and die again."

On its face, the phrasing of his statement seemed to suggest he had already died. His appearance certainly did not contradict such an assertion. Frighteningly emaciated, disheveled, and shaved of his affable trademark moustache, Fortt looked not only sick, but haunted.

Judge Anthony Ishii was nonetheless reluctant to deviate from the sentencing recommendation. "Your offense is a serious one, at least in terms of federal drug laws," he told Fortt soberly.

The judge's words were yet another reminder of the current legal conflicts -- although a state initiative permits the medicinal use of marijuana in California, federal law still strictly prohibits and punishes it. In the eyes of the U.S. government, Fortt's charges were indeed considered serious offenses.

"As such, I find 21 months to be an appropriate sentence," the judge decreed coolly, his voice a distant monotone.

Once all matters were neatly in order, the Marshals wheeled Fortt back to his holding cell. The newly-sentenced inmate stared forward vacantly as he disappeared down a hallway filled with the eerie din of rattling chains.

"[The judge] felt limited by the sentencing recommendation," Harralson shrugged outside the courtroom. "But, really, the plea agreement was a very generous one." 

As for what happens next, Harralson explained, "Joe could time out at the jail any day now. Then it's going to take a period of time for him to clear the [immigration] facility and get to Canada -- maybe just 30 days."

Arriving in Canada, his native country, Fortt will taste freedom again for the first time in nearly two years.

"We just have to hope he makes it there quickly," Harralson said with a somber nod. "Because in Canada, he's got a chance."


Originally published on March 5, 2007 by Vanessa Nelson at (now defunct).