Jury reaches split decision in Engstrom case | TheUnion.com

Jury reaches split decision in Engstrom case

A jury of eight women and four men didn’t buy allegations of police misconduct against Eric Engstrom, on trial in Nevada County Superior Court for possessing marijuana for sale and unlawfully growing marijuana.

“It was a smoke screen,” said juror Linda Zelhart after the jury reached a split decision Friday afternoon, clearing Engstrom of the more serious sale charge, while finding him guilty of unlawful cultivation. “We didn’t think the officers did anything wrong.”

Engstrom’s attorney, Stephen Munkelt of Nevada City, had raised questions during the preliminary hearing and the trial about the handling of some evidence, suggesting “sloppy” police work had tainted the case.

Nevada County Sheriff’s Sgt. Bill Smethers acknowledged two envelopes found in Engstrom’s home that had contained cash were mislaid after the cash had been converted into a check and sent to the U.S. Marshal’s office as part of the federal forfeiture process.

But Smethers strongly disputed allegations that Engstrom was unfairly targeted and that a portion of the cash went missing.

“There never has been a formal complaint filed,” Smethers said. “We have never even had a misconduct (allegation) filed against any of the officers in the narcotics task force.”

Members of the Nevada County narcotics task force found a cultivation set-up with about 80 marijuana plants and 2 1/2 pounds of bud during a February 2009 search of Engstrom’s Cascade Shores home.

But the presence of a large amount of cash – which Engstrom testified came from his failing business – and a digital scale that Engstrom said he used to weigh marijuana for his personal use were not considered to be sufficient evidence to convict on the first count, jurors said.

“We didn’t think the (deputy) district attorney had a strong enough case,” Zelhart said.

The amount of marijuana found and the potential yields of Engstrom’s hydroponic garden were big factors in the decision, several jurors said.

Jurors also dismissed a weapons enhancement.

Expert witness testimony from “cannabis consultant” Jason Browne actually hurt the defense, said juror Dale Peterson.

“We felt his calculations (regarding the yield) were incorrectly applied,” Peterson said. “If he’s an expert, he probably knew that wasn’t true.”

Deputy District Attorney Jim Phillips said the jury saw through Engstrom’s claims that the marijuana in his home was for his own personal medical use.

“We see case after case where scrips are used as a shield to try to justify far more than medical needs would seem to justify,” he said.

“We’re obviously disappointed the jury felt the cultivation was out of compliance,” Munkelt said. “But we’re very pleased they saw there was no evidence of sales.”

Engstrom said he was “extremely disappointed” in the verdict.

“They didn’t comply with Prop. 215,” he said, referring to the initiative that legalized medical marijuana.

Sentencing is set for April 26.

“It is a felony charge, and Mr. Engstrom is facing a prison sentence,” Munkelt said. “But given the facts of the case and his good record, the most likely action (by the judge) would be probation.”

Contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar at lkellar@theunion.com or (530) 477-4229.

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