FRESNO -- Two Modesto men facing federal drug charges Thursday took the stand in their own defense after one of their attorneys used his opening statement to blast the government for "vindictive and trumped-up charges."
Luke Scarmazzo and Ricardo Ruiz Montes, both 27, face the possibility of life in prison after federal authorities in September 2006 raided a medical marijuana dispensary they operated in Modesto.
The two maintain that their business -- California Healthcare Collective -- was legal under California law. But possession or use of the drug remains illegal under federal law.
That conflict made for a bizarre day in U.S. District Court in Fresno, in which prosecutors continually objected when the defendants used the word "legal" when talking about marijuana, and the defendants themselves consistently used terms such as "cannabis" or "medicine" to describe pot.
When Robert Forkner, who is representing Montes, asked his client how he came to start the California Healthcare Collective, he asked about selling marijuana.
"Yes, medicine," Montes responded.
Prosecutor Kathleen Servatius immediately objected, and U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger sustained the objection.
It even reached the point that prosecutors asked questions of Scarmazzo and Montes -- and then objected to their answers.
On the stand, neither Scarmazzo nor Montes denied they sold marijuana to people, whom they referred to as "patients." Said Scarmazzo: "We weren't trying to hide anything."
But federal authorities say Montes and Scarmazzo not only illegally processed and distributed marijuana, they also operated a continuing criminal enterprise, a charge that carries a mandatory 20-year minimum prison sentence with the possibility of a life term.
It led defense attorney Anthony Capozzi to give an opening statement to jurors in which he called Scarmazzo a good person, a classical pianist and former football player who had no intention to break the law, but instead is facing "vindictive and trumped-up charges by the government."