Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Heart patient ordered released from prison

The Sacramento Bee

Peter Ballinger, a heart transplant patient who went to prison 21 months ago terrified he would not survive his five-year term for growing marijuana, was freed Monday by the Sacramento federal judge who sentenced him.

U.S. District Judge William B. Shubb ordered the release pending re-sentencing after a federal appellate court ruled last week that Shubb was wrong in refusing to grant the 52-year-old Ballinger a reduced sentence.

In a motion for release filed Friday, Ballinger's lawyer, Chief Assistant Federal Defender Linda Harter, argued a new sentence should not exceed the time he has already served.

Harter said Monday she and her client are "thrilled" at the turn of events.

She said Ballinger's physical condition has become so poor since his incarceration that "he was afraid he wasn't going to make it."

Ballinger was released as soon as Shubb's order was served Monday on the warden at the U.S. Bureau of Prison's medical center in Lexington, Ky., Harter said. He was due in Sacramento on a flight scheduled to arrive late Monday night.

Harter had Ballinger plead guilty and cooperate with law enforcement, telling authorities in detail how he planted a pot garden in the Plumas National Forest with the hope of turning a profit. Based on that cooperation and her client's fragile health, Harter sought probation or, at most, home detention.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Phillip Talbert strongly opposed any sentence reduction, arguing that Ballinger's story about his venture and lack of a plan for selling the marijuana harvested from the 181 plants is inherently incomplete and untrue.

According to Harter's release motion, the 6-foot-5-inch Ballinger weighed 221 pounds when he began serving his sentence and 157 pounds when he was released from the hospital in the fall of 2005.

By Denny Walsh


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