Franklin County put Steven Sutherland behind bars for growing marijuana. This weekend, just under eleven months into his ten-year prison sentence, the 59-year-old passed away.
Sutherland had been recently diagnosed with lung cancer, his son tells Riverfront Times. But even before that, Sutherland had entered prison with an array of health problems: The June 2019 mugshot that guards snapped of him showed the convicted drug offender — who had been charged in 2015 for possessing all of 110 grams of marijuana and 21 plants — wearing an oxygen tube under his nose.
As RFT reported last summer, the case against Sutherland spent years winding its way through the court system. By the time it came to trial in 2019, Sutherland’s public defender argued for leniency, noting that the state had legalized medical marijuana in the intervening years and that it stood little to gain from imprisoning a seriously sick man.
Among other things, Sutherland suffered from chronic seizures that resisted medication. The seizures had been treated by Mercy Hospital neurologist, who, in a letter to the court wrote, “I believe medical use of marijuana may help.”
Despite Sutherland’s failing health, and his insistence that he was merely growing the cannabis for his own medical use, the case ended in a lengthy prison sentence. His own past came into play. A previous drug felony in 1997 meant Sutherland was a “prior offender,” which enhanced his possible punishment.
In May 2019, a judge sentenced him to ten years behind bars. On Saturday, May 9, one month shy of his 60th birthday, Sutherland died while in hospice at the at Tipton Correctional Center.
In an email, Karen Pojmann, director of communications for the Missouri Department of Corrections said Sutherland died of “natural causes not related to COVID-19.”
Sutherland’s son, Dakota Sutherland, said that his father had suffered a high fever in his last days and had been given antibiotics. Dakota claimed the case was under consideration for medical parole, “but he passed before the parole board released a decision.”
Dakota added that his father “wasn’t able to get up to use the phone. They did bring it to him the last time we heard from him.”
The family has started a GoFundMe campaign to pay for Sutherland’s memorial and funeral expenses in South Dakota.