A former firefighter and small business owner serving a life sentence for a non-violent cannabis offense has been released after serving more than a decade in prison.
The Last Prisoner Project (LPP) last week announced that a compassionate release had been secured for 57-year-old Andy Cox, who was serving a life sentence at the United States Penitentiary, Atwater in Merced County, California.
The LPP is a non-profit organization focused on restorative justice for people who have suffered under cannabis criminalization as the United States moves toward legalization.
Convicted for Cannabis Crimes
Cox was indicted in 2005 for a conspiracy that involved growing cannabis plants in the forest on his father’s property in 2004.
According to a 2017 interview with Rolling Stone, an irate neighbor had called the National Forest Service (NFS) to complain about deep ATV tracks crossing their land and running into the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia.
The NFS found more plants in trays at Cox’s father’s house.
Because there was more than one person involved in the operation, Cox and his partners were indicted in a conspiracy to manufacture cannabis.
Upon realizing that he could be facing five to ten years in prison for the charges, Cox went into hiding for three years before being captured in 2008.
Cox Took His Case to Trial
After a nearly four-day trial, Cox was convicted on November 18, 2008, and sentenced in 2009 to federal prison for life without the possibility of parole.
The conviction would have generally carried a ten-year sentence, but Cox received an enhanced mandatory minimum sentence because of a previous drug trafficking conviction in Indian River County in 1991 and a federal conviction in the Middle District of Georgia in 2000.
At the time, United States Attorney David E. Nahmias lauded Cox’s third strike as a saving grace to the land and the people, even though it was for a non-violent crime.
“This defendant was a twice-convicted drug trafficker who has now received his third and final strike,” said Nahmias. “His life sentence is just punishment for a career in the illegal drug trade, which most recently led him to exploit and degrade national forest land. He will have no more chances to poison our communities with illegal drugs, and his sentence should send a message that our national forests are not a safe haven for crime.”
During his time in prison, Cox lost his father, youngest son, and many other friends and family members.
As Time Passed, Legalization Grew
In the years following Cox’s conviction, an increasing number of states legalized cannabis for adult-use and medicinal use.
In 2020, the Goodwin Law Firm took Cox’s case pro bono as part of its partnership with the LPP.
After completing an extensive factual and legal investigation, Goodwin filed a motion for the compassionate release in the Northern District of Georgia on behalf of Cox, who had served nearly 13 years of his life sentence.
Goodwin filed the motion pursuant to the 2018 First Step Act based on two factors.
Firstly, Goodwin proposed that the COVID-19 pandemic presented an extraordinary and compelling reason to release Cox, whose age and health made him susceptible to the illness.
Secondly, Cox’s life sentence came from an outdated sentencing regime that imposed mandatory minimums that no longer exist for behavior that is legal in much of the United States.
After a Northern District of Georgia Assistant U.S. Attorney was appointed to respond to the motion, the Goodwin team negotiated a non-opposition response from the government.
Free At Last
The government filed a brief on January 5, 2021, affirmatively consenting to Cox’s release.
The assigned judge in the Northern District of Georgia granted Goodwin’s motion on the same day and ordered that Cox be immediately released.
“Last Prisoner Project is so grateful to the Goodwin team for their tireless efforts on this case, “said LPP Executive Director Sarah Gersten. “Their pro bono work on compassionate release is giving our constituents a second chance at life. We are thrilled that these efforts have allowed Andy to reconnect with his family after serving 13 years of an unjust sentence.”
On January 6, Cox walked out of Atwater as a free man and returned to his 81-year-old mother, two children, and other family members in Florida.
“Me and my family are forever indebted to Goodwin, they saved my life,” said Cox. “I am so blessed to have such an amazing team work so hard for my freedom.”