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December 13, 1971 - John Sinclair Freed From 10 Year Sentence For Possessing Two Joints - Today In Crime History

On this day, December 13, in the year 1971, the Michigan Supreme Court, on its own motion, ordered 1960's activist John Sinclair released from the ten year prison sentence he was serving for possession of two marijuana joints. The Court would later overturn his conviction, upholding Sinclair’s contention that Michigan’s marijuana statute, as then written, was unconstitutional.

In the 1960's, John Sinclair was an outspoken civil rights activist in the counterculture movement. Influenced by Black Panther leaders Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, Sinclair was one of the founders of the White Panther Party, eventually serving as its chairman. In 1970 the FBI referred to the White Panthers as “potentially the largest and most dangerous of revolutionary organizations in the United States.” As an activist leader, talented writer, poet and manager of the band MC5, Sinclair was viewed by law enforcement as a person who needed to be silenced.

Like many in the counterculture movement, Sinclair smoked marijuana. By 1968, Sinclair had been arrested and convicted of marijuana related offenses at least two times. The facts surrounding Sinclair’s marijuana arrest that led to a ten year sentence, according to the Michigan Court Supreme Court, are as follows:

The Detroit Police Department Narcotics Bureau had instructed Patrolman Vahan Kapagian and Policewoman Jane Mumford Lovelace to assist in an investigation of illegal activities involving narcotic violations in an area surrounding Wayne State University and, in particular, an establishment known as the Artists' Workshop which was located at 4863 John Lodge, in the City of Detroit. Defendant Sinclair made his residence above the Artists' Workshop, at 4867 John Lodge.

In pursuance of this assignment, Patrolman Kapagian grew a beard and began to let his hair grow long, in late August 1966. On October 18, 1966, using the aliases of Louis Cory and Pat Green, the officers commenced their assignment. They continued working until January 24, 1967, on this particular assignment. The officers assisted in doing typing and other odd chores at the Artists' Workshop, including sweeping floors and collating literature. They sat in at communal dinners and provided the food for one of these dinners. They joined a group called LEMAR, which advocated that marijuana be legalized. They listened to poetry and helped in the preparation of certain literature. Patrolman Kapagian visited the shop and saw defendant approximately two or three times a week until the defendant's arrest...

Patrolman Kapagian testified at the preliminary examination that on two occasions prior to December 22, 1966, during the investigation, the police officers asked defendant for marijuana. He denied this at the trial, despite the fact that his testimony to that effect at the preliminary examination was read to him from the transcript. Policewoman Lovelace stated that she had asked defendant on previous occasions to obtain marijuana for them.

Officer Kapagian testified that on December 22nd, at about 7 p.m., defendant appeared at the Workshop and following an exchange of greetings, defendant asked whether they had received any marijuana the previous night. The officers responded affirmatively and stated that they were looking for some more. At approximately 8:55 that evening, Kapagian told the defendant that they had to leave and defendant asked them to accompany him upstairs to his residence. Once inside the residence, the officers were seated at the kitchen table. Defendant went to a shelf and removed a brown porcelain bowl which he set down on the table before him. Defendant took some cigarette paper and from the contents of the bowl rolled a cigarette, which he gave to Kapagian. Kapagian handed this cigarette to Lovelace, who inserted it into a partially filled Kool pack. Defendant then rolled a second cigarette, lit it, and handed it to Kapagian. The officer said he did not want to smoke it then because he had to drive and the cigarette would make him dizzy. Kapagian gave the cigarette to Lovelace after defendant Sinclair had butted it. She placed the cigarette in the same Kool pack. At that time they said they had to leave, and departed. People of Michigan vs John Sinclair, 194. N.W. 878 (Michigan Supreme Court 1972)

Sinclair, was arrested on January 24, 1967, and charged with the unlawful sale and unlawful possession of two marijuana cigarettes. For almost 2-1/2 years Sinclair’s criminal defense attorney litigated his case. Prior to the trial, a special three-judge panel was convened to consider the constitutionality of the Michigan statute prohibiting sale or possession of marijuana. On April 17, 1968, the panel upheld the Michigan drug statute against the contentions that it violated the equal protection clause; denied Sinclair due process of law; violated rights of privacy retained by the people; and that the penalty provisions imposed cruel and unusual punishment.

The trial judge, upon the motion of Sinclair’s criminal defense lawyer, dismissed the count for unlawful sale on the ground that the sale was entrapped by the police officers. At the trial, the only witnesses were the two police officers. No corroborating evidence was introduced. Although one of the undercover officers was equipped in a manner to enable the transmission of his conversation to other officers, no arrangements were made to tape the conversations, which allegedly occurred between Sinclair and the police officers. In addition, one officer testified that he did not preserve his log book for the year 1966 because he decided that it was not worth saving. He did admit that if the log book had been preserved, the presence or absence of entries relating to the transactions of December 22nd and all previous transactions during the investigation, would either confirm or disprove his testimony.

The jury found Sinclair guilty of possession of marijuana (the two joints) on July 25, 1969. On July 28, 1969 the trial judge sentenced Sinclair to 9-1/2 to 10 years imprisonment. Though Sinclair had been released on bail for the 2-1/2 years between his arrest and trial, and had never failed to appear when required to do so, he was not allowed to remain free while his case was appealed. Sinclair began his prison term.

Sinclair’s criminal defense attorney appealed the legal issues they raised during their pretrial and trial litigation. On the first level of appellate review, The Court of Appeals affirmed Sinclair’s conviction. 30 Mich App 473.

On August 31, 1971, The Michigan Supreme Court agreed to review Sinclair’s case. Meanwhile, a national campaign to free Sinclair was underway. Many Americans were outraged that Sinclair had been sentenced to ten years in prison for merely possessing two joints of marijuana. Indeed, the Michigan legislature recognized that Michigan’s classification of marijuana as a narcotic, which permitted lengthy prison sentences like that imposed on Sinclair, was unfair.  While Sinclair was in prison, the Michigan Legislature passed the "Controlled Substances Act of 1971," which classified marijuana as a distinct type of substance and drastically reduced penalties for its sale and possession.

Sinclair’s harsh sentence inspired Abbie Hoffman to jump on the stage during The Who's performance at Woodstock to protest the penalty imposed. It also sparked the landmark "John Sinclair Freedom Rally" at Ann Arbor's Crisler Arena on December 10, 1971. The event brought together national and international luminaries, including musicians John Lennon, Yoko Ono, David Peel, Stevie Wonder, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Archie Shepp, and Roswell Rudd; and speakers Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Jerry Rubin, and Bobby Seale. Before 15,000 Sinclair supporters, John Lennon sang a new song entitled “John Sinclair,” with lyrics that included the chant “"..... gotta gotta gotta set him free.”

Three days after the rally, on December 13, 1971, Sinclair was freed from prison when the Michigan Supreme Court, on the Court’s own motion, ordered that he be released from incarceration. Three months later, on March 9, 1972, the Michigan Supreme Court would reverse Sinclair’s conviction for marijuana possession. The Court found that the state statute, as applied to marijuana, violated the constitution’s equal protection clause for erroneously classifying marijuana as a narcotic, upholding Sinclair’s defense attorneys’ contention that statute was unconstitutional and void.


Sources and other information:

The John and Leni Sinclair Papers, 1957-1999 at the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

People of Michigan v. John Sinclair, 194 NW 2d 878 - Mich: Supreme Court 1972

The Legendary John Sinclair,

John and Leni Sinclair Papers, 1957-2003, Bentley Historical Library, University of MichiganBentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

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