Pickens County, Alabama Case Against Purple Heart Veteran Echoes Racist History

Veteran Sean Worsley stopped for gas in Gordo, Alabama to pump gas for his wife on a family road trip to his grandmother’s house. While pumping gas he was laughing and playing air guitar. He was approached by Gordo PD for violating a noise ordinance with his music, and the events that unfolded from there would change his life forever.

Full story after the jump.

In August 2016, Purple Heart-recipient Sean Worsley was arrested for the possession of marijuana in Gordo, Alabama. The Black veteran had purchased the cannabis using a state-issued Arizona medical card before leaving for a road trip to visit family in the South. The arrest — and the cavalcade of misfortune that followed for Sean and his wife Eboni Worsley — was thoroughly detailed in a recent account published by Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.

When they were arrested, the Worsleys had stopped to refuel their car on the way to Sean’s grandmother’s house in North Carolina. Gordo Police Officer Carl Abramo, who has since left the force, noticed Sean playing air guitar and joking around with Eboni and he approached to ask them to turn down their music. Eboni complied immediately, but the officer smelled cannabis.

Note: the smell of cannabis was also the justification cited by St. Anthony, Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez before shooting and killing Philando Castile with five close-range bullets. This event occurred just one month before the Worsleys’ arrest.

Believing that his state-issued card protected him, Sean informed the inquiring officer of his veteran status and that he did have medically prescribed cannabis in the car. Sean told Abramo exactly where to find it and calmly complied with his requests but the officer called for backup and, ultimately, the police conducted a full search of the vehicle. They found Sean’s cannabis, tools commonly used by medical cannabis patients, grocery bags containing the loose tobacco insides of cigarillos, and Eboni’s prescribed painkillers.

According to Alabama state law, possession of cannabis for “personal use” is a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to one year in jail and a $6,000 fine. However, since Worsley had multiple strains in separate bags and a scale, the Gordo police officers on the scene claimed he was attempting to traffic. This assessment increased charges to at least Possession in the First Degree, bringing jail time up to a mandatory minimum of one year and one day, along with a $15,000 fine.

Ignorance About Medical Cannabis Leads to Biased Assumptions

Every cannabis patient knows that having multiple bags and a scale is not uncommon practice when managing a condition. Different phenotypes of cannabis plants produce flowers that can help with various symptoms — because of this, many cannabis patients keep more than one type of flower on hand to ensure they can treat specific symptoms. Over a long trip, a patient often must titrate out their daily dosage to ensure they don’t run out of meds before they return to a medical dispensary — which requires a scale to do effectively.

A Deposition from the District Court of Pickens, Alabama states that cannabis flowers were packaged in a bag, a plastic container, and a cardboard box. They also recorded finding a scale, glass pipe, rolling papers, cigarillos, and some bags of loose tobacco. There is no mention of a box of empty baggies for processing or pounds of flower to weigh out from. As evidenced by his willingness to cooperate with police to his supply and medical card, Sean Worsley was in possession of various strains of medical cannabis and the items that are often required to use his prescribed medicine, which in no way meet the amounts necessary to rationally consider him a trafficker.

The knowledge of what a scale and cannabis flowers are used for by a patient is a law enforcement blind spot, one that led four Gordo, Alabama police officers to charge a Purple Heart recipient with a felony. This ignorance is supported by a Federal government and judicial system that refuses to recognize that cannabis has any medicinal value. The ineptitude with cannabis is shared nationwide by law enforcement. A fact that’s proven by the “big busts” of legal hemp shipments that plagued startup CBD companies in 2019.

Ganjapreneur reached out to Pickens County Judge Lance Bailey (who did not rule on the case) for comment, as the arrest happened within his presiding county. Judge Bailey replied, “Yes, the Defendant had a prescription for medicinal marijuana in AZ. But the Defendant had 2 large bags of marijuana in his vehicle, a set of scales, and smaller bags that are used for packaging.”

No smaller bags are mentioned in the deposition, nor is the weight of the cannabis flower that was found in each container listed, and Judge Bailey did not respond to further requests for clarification. Based on publicly-available information, we can’t help but wonder if the two “large bags” referenced in his email are in reference to the “…two separate grocery bags containing cigarellos and tobacco from within the cigarellos…” that are listed in the deposition, which would serve as another example of just how much ignorance about cannabis there is within the justice system.

A County Steeped in Racist History

The mistreatment of this case is an unfortunate reality for many Black Americans. Data shows that in 2016, the year of the Worsleys’ arrest, Black people were arrested for cannabis possession at four times the rate of white people in the state of Alabama; this data has been available since October 2018.

When asked by the Alabama Political Reporter if Sean Worsley would have been treated differently if he were white, West Alabama District Attorney Andy Hamlin said, “That is an absolute pile of crap,” and added that it was “ridiculous and insulting” to even suggest it.

The assertion that Worsley’s treatment could be based on his melanin content is not so ridiculous, however, when taking a look into the history of justice in Pickens County. The Pickens County courthouse is famously haunted by Henry Wells, a Black freedman who was shot by police while attempting to escape a gathering mob in 1878.

Pickens County Courthouse
The Pickens County courthouse is reportedly haunted by the ghost of Henry Wells.

In 1979, civil rights activists Maggie Bozeman (50 at the time) and Julia Wilder (69 at the time) were arrested and convicted of voter fraud in Pickens County. The charges claimed the Black activists visited with elderly and illiterate residents of the area to assist them in voting through absentee ballots. The court case that proceeded is confusing, with testimonies from witnesses consistently siding with both the defense and the prosecution, depending on who was interviewing them. A parade of community beacons testified on behalf of the character of both civil rights activists but the pair were still found guilty.

Maggie Bozeman and Julia Wilder
Maggie Bozeman and Julia Wilder, Photo via Donald V. Whatkins

At the end of the trial, the all-white jury sentenced Bozeman to 4 years in prison and Wilder to the maximum of 5 years. Judge Clatus Junkin denied probation and the pair were sent to the state penitentiary. After national outrage and eleven days of protests, the Governor organized a work-release program for the activists. Circuit Judge Clatus Junkin went on the record to state that the elderly women had received special treatment, and that the work release program was a “slap in the face to the judicial system.” The entire conviction was thrown out in 1984 by US District Court Judge Truman Hobbs, ruling that the women were improperly tried by Judge Clatus Junkin.

Intergenerational Injustice

It was almost forty years ago that Bozeman and Wilder were sentenced to a punishment four times harsher than the most severely treated white defendant had ever faced for the same crime.

Flash forward to 2020, and Sean Worsley is sentenced to a ridiculous 5 years in prison over medical cannabis in the circuit court of Judge Samuel Junkin, who is none other than the son of Judge Clatus Junkin.

The severity and cruelty of the sentence is important to note, as Sean Worsley faces 60 months in the custody of the murderous Alabama Department of Corrections during a rapidly worsening global pandemic. Even by the standards of Alabama law, his sentence is egregious.

Senator Cam Ward explained to a reporter in 2018, “The only people in state prisons on possession of any kind of marijuana are those trafficking the truckloads of it.” But in Pickens County, Alabama, it appears that even a registered medical patient who served their country can wind up in prison… if they’re Black.

Ganjapreneur reached out to Judge Samuel Junkin multiple times for comment but a representative said he was on vacation and out of the office.

In the wake of the Alabama Appleseed article detailing Sean’s case, there has been an outpouring of support for the Worsley family. At her family’s suggestion, Eboni Worsley set up a GoFundMe that surpassed its $80,000 goal and she posted a video message in response to all of the support. In this video, she discloses that among their many fees and payments, they owe the VA alone $66,000.

Another Example of the Human Toll of Cannabis Criminalization

The Worsleys’ is a tragic tale of an American veteran who, by all accounts, was horribly mistreated by the nation he pledged to defend upon returning home from deployment with a Purple Heart, PTSD, and a traumatic brain injury. It is a narrative that repeats itself across the American judicial system, especially when the defendant is Black. In Pickens County, it is a continuation of the centuries-old history of unjustifiably harsh sentencing for Black people, a history so deep that local folklore would suggest it literally haunts the courthouse windows.

In the case of Sean Worsley, there is even more ignorance at play — if law enforcement had any real understanding of medical cannabis, it is possible that Worsley would have been charged with a lesser misdemeanor offense. And if police across the nation were more informed about the uses and effects of medical cannabis, perhaps vulnerable patients would be less likely to face police brutality and violence.

If you would like to take action in support of freeing Sean Worsley, we suggest that you start by reading and signing this open letter to Alabama officials.

Get daily cannabis business news updates. Subscribe

Have an additional perspective to share? Send us a message to let us know, and if your comment is chosen by our editors it could be featured here.


Ganjapreneur is made possible by our partners:

Latest Cannabis News

View all news Get email updates

Featured Business Profiles

Create a profile View all categories

From Our Partners