By Denny Walsh
A Chico man serving a mandatory 10 years in prison for growing marijuana has had 21/2 years cut off his sentence by federal prosecutors who are notoriously hard-nosed about pot dealers.
Bryan James Epis, (pictured) an inmate at the Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution in Southern California, should now be released in early 2014 instead of September 2016.
Epis, 45, who was one of the first in the state to establish a cannabis club after passage in 1996 of California's law permitting medicinal use of pot, has been locked in a pitched battle with law enforcement for nearly 20 years over his cultivation and use of marijuana. He was found guilty in June 2002 by a jury in Sacramento federal court of conspiracy to manufacture 1,000 or more plants at his home within 1,000 feet of Chico High School. But for much of the intervening time, he was free pending efforts to overturn the conviction.
U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner said today a recent U.S. Supreme Court opinion may have made Epis' challenge more viable.
"As set forth in the settlement agreement, Bryan Epis claimed that his trial attorneys rendered ineffective assistance to him with respect to their advice concerning the United States' pretrial plea offer," Wagner said in a prepared statement. "As also detailed in the agreement, his trial attorneys did not refute that claim, and under recent Supreme Court precedent, Epis therefore might have been entitled to some relief."
U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. signed off this morning on the settlement agreement hammered out in weeks of negotiation between Epis attorney John Balazs and Assistant U.S. Attorney Samuel Wong, who is known as one of California's toughest marijuana prosecutors. The rare pact vacating a sentence that had been upheld by federal appellate judges required approval from the highest levels of the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.