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Pot farmer's case weighs heavily in decision to release two murder suspects from jail

When Joseph Tigano III was first arrested, it's a safe bet no one saw the legal legacy that would sprout from his otherwise simple and straightforward request for a speedy trial.

A decade later, the Cattaraugus County man's nearly seven years in pre-trial custody is being cited as one the reasons why two Buffalo men facing allegations of murder may soon be released from jail and into home confinement.

The two men, Ernest Green and Daniel Rodriguez, are in custody in connection with the 2009 murder of Jabril Harper in Buffalo's Roosevelt Park, but the judge in the case recently dismissed the charges against them.

A few days later, U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny, citing the defendants' 68 months in custody without a conviction, ordered them released from jail and held instead in home detention with electronic monitoring.

Skretny cited their constitutional rights to a speedy trial, the same legal issue that gave rise to Tigano's early release from prison last year.

"We have to insure that these very serious cases are tried expeditiously," Barry N. Covert, a lawyer for Rodriguez, said of the court's rationale in dismissing the charges.

Tigano, who was arrested in 2008 but waited until 2015 to see his case go to trial, was eventually found guilty of operating a marijuana farm in Cattaraugus County. He received a mandatory sentence of 20 years in prison, a sentence one judge called unnecessary, even excessive, but out of her hands.

In November, more than two years later, an appeals court reviewing Tigano's case ordered him released early and pointed to his time in jail without a conviction. The court later found that his pre-trial custody was the longest ever experienced by a defendant in a speedy trial case in its history.

"No single extraordinary factor caused the cumulative seven years of pre-trial delay," the court said in its opinion. "Instead, the outcome was the result of countess small choices and neglects, none of which was individually responsible for the injustice suffered by Tigano."

In the Jabril Harper murder case, Skretny said the defendants were "prejudiced" by a 68-month pre-trial detention under oppressive conditions and the threat of the death penalty. Early on in the case, federal prosecutors said they would seek the death penalty against Harper's killers.

In ordering the release of Green and Rodriguez from jail, Skretny stopped well short of setting them free. He ordered them held in home confinement with electronic monitoring devices, which will occur as soon as the homes can be equipped with land lines to accommodate the monitoring devices.

Rodriguez also faces unrelated charges in Steuben County that Covert expects will be dismissed for the same reason – speedy trial issues.

"This court finds that defendants' continued pre-trial custody violated their due process rights," the judge said in his decision. "But that does not mean the defendants no longer pose a threat to the community or a risk of flight."

Skretny noted that Green and Rodriguez each have felony criminal records and that Green also has a history of escape attempts.

During their nearly three-month trial, the government argued that Green, Rodriguez and another defendant, Rodshaun Black, kidnapped Harper at gunpoint, robbed him of jewelry, drugs and money and then transported him to Roosevelt Park, where he was killed.

The jury failed to reach a verdict on the murder charges and acquitted Green and Black of kidnapping and robbing another drug dealer. Black, who also had murder charges dropped, remains in state custody on a separate conviction.

Jury fails to convict four men in Roosevelt Park murder

Covert, who pointed to Tigano in seeking his client's release, said it's clear the earlier case played a role.

"The judge himself relied heavily on Tigano," Covert said of Skretny.

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, nearly 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.

In its final opinion ordering Tigano released, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City pointed to the prosecutors, judges and defense lawyers involved in the prosecution and said they repeatedly ignored his demands for a speedy trial.

At one point, Tigano engaged in a hunger strike intended to protest a canceled court appearance and draw attention to his plea for a trial.

"It is difficult to imagine a case that would have warranted scheduling priority over Tigano, yet time and again this low-priority case took a back seat to competing demands," the court said in its opinion.

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

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

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.




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