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The remarkable life and imprisonment of Stephen Nodine.
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When it turned out that the Lortab prescriptions were legitimate, the feds — obviously wanting to keep the pressure on Nodine in order to “break his will” in the murder case being pursued by their friends in local law enforcement — found another avenue. While spending three days in the psych ward, he had tested positive for marijuana and admitted to smoking a joint on the beach the day Downs died. So they hit him under the same law, for marijuana-plus-gun rather than Lortab-plus-gun.
So local, state, and federal prosecutors had Nodine in a three-way pincer: impeachment, potplus- gun, and capital murder. Establish an official record in one case of Nodine misbehaving under the influence, and they could introduce that evidence of Nodine-as-convict in the other cases to make him appear all the more sinister for the jurors in the strangely delayed murder trial.
Here’s where things got Kafkaesque. Nodine’s legal team saw the trap and, quite understandably, moved to delay the federal marijuana-gun case until after the murder trial. It was a most reasonable request. Not only was the federal charge an unfair application of a law clearly not meant to cover somebody who neither dealt drugs nor used a weapon in connection with the drug trade, but a trial on that issue clearly would poison the well for the murder jury. There was no reason, none at all, not to postpone. But District Court Judge Ginny Granade wouldn’t budge. Murder trial be damned, she forced the federal gun case forward.
Nodine had no real choice: Rather than expend time, effort, and money to fight that charge while a murder rap hung over his head, he pleaded guilty. Amazingly, even though it was a first-ever conviction for him, without any evidence of actual gun use, Judge Granade handed down a stiff sentence: 15 months in the federal pokey. Fifteen months, for keeping a perfectly legal handgun under his bed.
Early this year, in a West Virginia case challenging a similar use of that federal statute for a non-violeny,casual narcotics user, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the conviction and ordered a retrial because, absent other compelling evidence, the use of the law in that way would violate the Second Amendment.
The Fourth Circuit is correct. Gun ownership unconnected to illegal use is nothing more than possession of a perfectly legal instrument of self-protection. The National Rifle Association should be, well, up in arms against this trampling of the right to bear.
Thus, completely apart from the murder case (and yes, dear reader, we will return to that narrative), Stephen Nodine found himself in a pen, assigned to Federal Corrections Institute Miami, in his old stomping grounds of South Florida. And, as was his wont, Nodine again, yes again, found himself befriended by the rich and famous. Even in a federal prison, Stephen Nodine was far removed from the welfare cheese of his early youth.
Lord Conrad Black, media mogul and respected historian, was in the same federal prison for alleged financial shenanigans — a conviction many observers (especially conservatives) think was a total sham, an example of overzealous prosecutors criminalizing the mere give-and-take of the free market.
Black had written an excellent biography of Richard Nixon, so he knew Nixon’s chief of staff, Alexander Haig, very well indeed. He and Nodine could trade Haig stories. And he and Nodine could trade stories, both well founded, of prosecutorial abuse. So it was that Conrad Black, Baron of Crossharbour, wrote a March 2012 piece for the Huffington Post, highlighting such abuses and using the Nodine gun case as a prime example.
“In the facility where we were, there was no shortage of people who did absolutely nothing to deserve to get there, but Stephen really stood out,” Black told me in a May 21 phone interview. “There are many honest, conscientious prosecutors — but also, many of them who have no real discipline on them can get away with what they want. People wielding great power with no curb on them are going to do a lot of damage. [I did everything I could to investigate Nodine’s case, and] there were some particularly unappetizing aspects of how they treated him. It reeked.”
IN LATE APRIL OF THIS YEAR, Stephen Nodine was released from federal prison. The murder charge, however, still hangs over his head, with a trial expected September 10. Here’s why:
Seven months after Angel Downs died, Nodine was tried for murder. All of southern Alabama seemed to follow every development, every courtroom Tweet, each tiny new piece of evidence. It was coastal Alabama’s version of the O.J. Simpson trial — and it even had a leather glove moment. Prosecutor Judy Newcomb, in one of her several bizarre theories about the case, spent large amounts of time positing that Nodine had dragged Downs’ body a few feet after the shooting, “staging” the scene before jumping in his truck and speeding away. As evidence of such staging, she kept insisting that Downs’ long blond hair, curiously fanned out behind her head like a halo, could not have fallen that way as a result of the shooting itself.
At one point, Newcomb had pillows put on the courtroom floor to cushion herself, and then personally re-enacted the way Downs probably fell.
Oops! When Newcomb fell back, trying to show that hair doesn’t normally splay that way, her own hair ended up fanned out behind her in, yes, a halo effect, almost exactly as Downs was found. The only thing missing was a defense attorney like Johnnie Cochran to holler that if the hair wasn’t fixed, you can’t convict.
Even so, the jury deadlocked. Nine of 12 jurors thought Nodine was guilty. His truck, after all, had been seen speeding away from the scene. No conviction, but no acquittal. Prosecutors insist that, with Nodine’s federal sentence now completed, they will try him again.