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Pot farmer freed from prison more than a decade earlier than expected

When Joseph Tigano III went to prison for growing marijuana in Cattaraugus County, the judge who sent him there regreted the decision and said so publicly from the bench.

She called the mandatory 20-year sentence unnecessary, even excessive, but acknowledged it was out of her hands.

Late Wednesday afternoon, that same judge intervened on Tigano's behalf and, acting on the orders of an appeals court that had reversed his conviction just four hours earlier, ordered him released from prison.

Tigano, after more than nine years in custody, was released at about 11:30 p.m. Wednesday – more than a decade earlier than expected.

"He's obviously excited but also in a bit of shock," said Andrew Gladstein, the Manhattan lawyer who led the legal effort to overturn Tigano's conviction. "To wake up after a decade in prison and told you're getting out later that day is hard to grasp."

From the time of his arrest, Tigano's case generated a spotlight, in part because of the stiff prison sentence he faced but also because of the time, seven years, spent in custody before going to trial.

In many ways, the Village of Cattaraugus man became a human face in the campaign to reform America's drug laws, the kind of nonviolent offender advocates often point to when criticizing the war on drugs.

Even more important, perhaps, is Tigano’s mental health – he was the subject of three separate competency hearings – and what a former defense lawyer called a “multitude” of mental health problems.

"I'm just thrilled he's going to be home for Thanksgiving," Gladstein said Thursday.

Convicted of operating a marijuana farm with 1,000 plants, Tigano received a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison, a penalty even U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Wolford called excessive.

At the time of Tigano’s sentencing, Wolford made it clear she considered 20 years heavy handed but pointed to the mandatory minimum that the prosecution sought and the law required.

“It is much greater than necessary,” she said at the time, “but I do not have a choice.”

A year later, Tigano sought an early release from prison when he unsuccessfully sought a pardon from President Barack Obama. Even the pleas of Tigano's 80-year old father fell on deaf ears.

“I would do anything to have him back,” Tigano’s father, Joseph, said at the time. “I just miss him so much. He needs a second chance. He’s my kid. I just wish he was home.”

Gladstein said Tigano, who was in a federal prison in Pennsylvania, was met by some cousins Wednesday night and planned to reunite with his father soon. He admitted it was an emotional day for everyone involved in his client's nine-year legal battle.

"There was a lot of screaming here yesterday," Gladstein said of the reaction in his office. "There was pandemonium. I've been a lawyer a long time but this was something special, something you wait your entire career for."

Arrested in 2008 at his home in Cattaraugus, Tigano and his father were accused of running a multimillion-dollar marijuana business.

Authorities said they seized more than 1,400 plants and 100 pounds of marijuana packaged for sale, and estimated the total value at between $300,000 and $500,000.

The elder Tigano took a plea deal that kept him out of prison. But the younger Tigano went to trial and soon found himself facing allegations that he ran a highly sophisticated operation that did it all – grow, harvest and distribute marijuana.

In the end, the jury found him guilty of manufacturing and distributing marijuana.

Tigano also had a prior conviction for growing marijuana 12 years earlier, and that gave prosecutors the ability to seek an even longer sentence, including the mandatory minimum of 20 years.

"That was wrong," Gladstein said of the government's insistence on using the prior conviction.

Tigano says the government improperly used the 1996 conviction and the potential for a longer prison sentence as a bargaining chip during plea negotiations with Tigano.

In reversing Tigano's conviction, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals did not offer a legal explanation for why – that will come later – but Tigano's lawyers argued that his seven years in pre-trial custody violated his constitutional rights to a speedy trial.




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