Coptic Claims Jury Failed to Use Facts In Drug Convictions

Tampa Tribune-Times/June 21, 1981

One of nine members of the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church convicted on federal marijuana charges says the jury based its verdict on the looks and beliefs of the defendants, not on the facts of the case.

"It was a massacre, a bloody massacre," Michael Booth said Friday after he and eight co-defendants were convicted. "They found us guilty because we all look alike, have beards and are Coptics."

Members of the Jamaica-based sect say they consider smoking marijuana a religious sacrament. The nine convicted Friday live in a mansion on an exclusive residential island between Miami and Miami Beach and came to court each day dressed in flowing robes of gold and green.

A six-man, six-woman jury deliberated just five hours before finding each defendant guilty on two counts of conspiracy to import marijuana and three counts of possession of marijuana.

But one juror said religion had nothing to do with the verdict.

"There wasn't any one particular piece of evidence that convinced us," said the juror, Hamilton Gill. "The jury felt they were all guilty."

U.S. District Judge William Hoevler delayed sentencing pending background investigations. Each faces a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison and a $75,000 fine.

Convicted along with Booth were Clifton Ray Middleton, Jeffrey Brown, Irving Imoberstag, Robert Rawler, Bradford Eldo Rush, Randall Collins, Jacob Shnurman and Larry Lancelotti.

Two of an original 12 defendants were severed from the case and will have a separate trial. A Third was acquitted during the nine-week trial.

The government alleged the Coptics, indicted in 1979, imported "multi-tons" of marijuana into this country.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara Schwartz reminded jurors in closing arguments that more than 70 tons of marijuana was found on church-owned property.

After the trial, Middleton was taken into custody by federal marshals to begin a 30-month jail term stemming from convictions in a 1972 marijuana case and a subsequent bail-jumping charge. The others remained free on bond pending appeal.

Hoevler severed the case of church leader Thomas Francis Reilly, also known as "Brother Louv," after his attorney became ill. The only woman defendant, Ann Mary Morrison, also was severed.

Defendant Greg Lancelotti was granted a directed verdict of acquittal.

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