FRESNO -- Prosecutors Wednesday put the finishing touches on their case against two Modesto men facing federal drug charges by showing jurors a hip-hop video featuring one of the defendants appearing to challenge federal authorities with two raised middle fingers and an expletive.
Now that man -- aspiring hip-hop artist Luke Scarmazzo -- will take the stand today in U.S. District Court in Fresno to explain himself and his controversial video.
Scarmazzo and his business partner, Ricardo Ruiz Montes, both 27, are facing the possibility of life in prison after federal authorities in September 2006 raided a medical marijuana dispensary they operated in Modesto. The two maintain their business -- California Healthcare Collective -- was legal under California law, and their attorneys say the two men had no intention of breaking the law.
But while the state legalized the medical use of marijuana in 1996 under Proposition 215, possession or use of the drug remains illegal under federal law. And because of that, the two can't use the state law as a defense in the case.
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Wednesday's testimony featured, among others, brothers Antonio Malagon, 30, and Jose Malagon, 24, who were managers at the collective. The two men originally were charged along with Montes and Scarmazzo, but they pleaded guilty to conspiring to manufacture and distribute marijuana and agreed to testify in the trial.
Both men described how the distribution operation worked. Antonio Malagon said he started at the business making $100 each day, and then was given a raise to $200 daily after he became a manager. Scarmazzo had said before the trial he was making about $13,000 a month.
Prosecutors then detailed the businesses' financial transactions and spending habits of owners Scarmazzo and Montes, including Scarmazzo's purchase of an $184,589 Mercedes-Benz automobile.
Anthony Capozzi, who is representing Scarmazzo, said prosecutors were attempting to show spending and cash flow that make the two men part of a continuing criminal enterprise. That felony charge is potentially the most serious against the two, because it carries a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence and the possibility of life in prison.
That all led up to the late afternoon showing of the video, which ended the federal government's case. Neither Elana Landau nor Kathleen Servatius, who are prosecuting the case, offered any sort of introduction or comment. The video was simply played.
Titled "Business Man," it features Scarmazzo making his case to an unknown political body -- a group he today likely will testify is the Modesto City Council. Scarmazzo, who often sneers, preens and shakes his fist during the video, looks radically different now, his long hair that was often pulled back in a ponytail replaced by short hair and a suit.
In a key sequence in the video, Scarmazzo raises both middle fingers and says "(expletive) the feds."
Capozzi said Scarmazzo was not planning to testify -- until the video was played. "He's forced to testify and to explain it now," he told U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger after jurors had left for the day.
In addition to Scarmazzo, Capozzi will have the video's producer testify, likely that it was just an act geared to attract a younger audience.
The defendants' attorneys are expected to start and end their defense today and the case should go to the jury Tuesday.