Pubdate: Fri, 21 May 1999
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Copyright: 1999 The Sacramento Bee
Contact:  P.O.Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852
Author: Denny Walsh 


An angry confrontation between Woody Harrelson and a federal judge erupted
Thursday during a marijuana cultivation trial in a Sacramento courtroom,
nearly landing the actor in jail.

U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. ultimately warned Harrelson, who
first gained fame on the "Cheers" sitcom, that he might find himself behind
bars if he continued to defy the court.

"How do you sleep at night?" Harrelson shot back before stepping down from
the witness stand.

Harrelson, known for his eco-activism as well as his roles in movies ranging
from "Indecent Proposal" to "Natural Born Killers," appeared as a defense
witness Thursday in the trial of Trinity County resident B.E. Smith.

Smith's is the first criminal marijuana trial in a California federal court
since the passage of Proposition 215, a state law allowing pot to be smoked
by those obtaining medical authorization.

Eventually, the case could establish a precedent for how the California
measure will be handled in federal courts.

Harrelson called Smith, an outspoken advocate of medicinal marijuana, "my
good friend and mentor" and the "last free man in America."

The fireworks ignited when Harrelson disobeyed Burrell's orders, then
verbally attacked the judge after he was admonished from the bench.

Leading up to the tense exchange, Assistant U.S. Attorney R. Steven Lapham
objected to some questions from defense lawyer Thomas Ballanco and Burrell
sustained the objections.

A couple of times, Harrelson answered anyway. "Are you surprised to see Mr.
Smith on trial here today?" asked Ballanco.

Lapham's objection was sustained, but Harrelson said, "Certainly, for a
medical marijuana case, I consider it odd."

Burrell told Harrelson he must obey rulings on objections.

"I'm just wondering why you're keeping the truth from the jury," said
Harrelson, referring to a pretrial ruling by Burrell that Smith would not be
able to cite medicinal use and Proposition 215.

At that point, Burrell excused the jury and quoted case law to Harrelson on
a judge's power to control courtroom behavior.

"I didn't think you had much respect for the law," the actor fired back.

"You have attempted to put issues before the jury I have ruled
non-admissible," said Burrell, warning Harrelson that he might be arrested
if his defiance continued.

"Do you understand?" Burrell demanded.

Harrelson gave the judge a hard stare, then looked away.

Burrell refused to allow Ballanco to continue questioning Harrelson
regarding Smith's reputation as an honest, law-abiding citizen.

He ruled such testimony would be cumulative since Harrelson had already said
that Smith is "always truthful" and "has a great deal of integrity."

"I suspect you've brought this witness here to disrupt this trial," the
judge told Ballanco.

Burrell directed Harrelson to step down but, as he departed the witness
stand, the actor hurled his parting shot regarding Burrell's sleeping
habits, suggesting he lacked conscience.

Harrelson is no stranger to controversy.

He and others were arrested in November 1996 after causing a massive traffic
jam by scaling the Golden Gate Bridge to demand that the government protect
the 60,000-acre Headwaters redwood grove.

Harrelson also has posted a $500,000 bond for a cancer patient facing
criminal pot charges and he is an outspoken advocate for industrial uses of

He came to federal court Thursday already angry at Burrell's handling of the
case. In a recent letter to The Bee, Harrelson said the judge had shown
"blatant disregard for the precepts of our forefathers."

"Apparently in Judge Burrell's courtroom, he is not content for lady justice
to be blind; she must also be deaf, dumb, bound, gagged, raped and
dismembered," he wrote.

The courtroom drama was reminiscent of some maverick roles taken on by the
37-year-old Harrelson, who parlayed his Emmy-winning success on "Cheers"
into major movie stardom.

He recently enjoyed critical acclaim for his portrayal of Big Boy, an
untamed and doomed New Mexico cowboy home from World War II, in "Hi-Lo Country."

Earlier Thursday, Smith testified that smoking marijuana has successfully
curbed his abuse of alcohol. He did not make a secret of growing it for
himself and others after passage of Proposition 215, he said.

Smith, 52, said he served as an infantryman in Vietnam and is a "political
activist" who worked in the campaign for the pro-marijuana initiative.

Harrelson testified that he met Smith when both were involved in the 1996
Headwaters protest.

The following year, Smith planted an 87-plant marijuana garden on land in
Denny that he leased from a friend, Martin Lederer.

In September 1997 the government seized the plants and, two months later,
Smith and Lederer were charged in a federal grand jury indictment.

The case has been marked by open friction between Burrell and defense counsel.

The judge found that California's 3-year-old measure does not constitute a
viable defense in a court governed by federal law, which does not make an
exception for using marijuana under a doctor's care.

After Burrell ruled that Smith's prescription for the drug and its medicinal
value generally were not to be presented, Lederer pleaded guilty to
misdemeanor possession and is awaiting sentencing.

Smith's attorneys moved last week to disqualify Burrell, saying the judge
took the case out of the jury's hands by stripping Smith of his defense.

Burrell has addressed the defense "with such an extreme degree of anger and
disdain that it would be impossible for the jury" not to be influenced and
prejudiced, the attorneys claimed.

The judge denied their motion and trial commenced Tuesday.
Harrison[Harrelson] was the final witness.

The jury got the case in midafternoon Thursday and will continue
deliberating today.

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