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Thomas Cunningham hit with 18 felony counts, possible years in jail, over "pot brownie assault"

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Update: On Monday, we reported about the arrests of CU students Thomas Cunningham and Mary Essa for "pot brownie assault" -- secretly feeding a professor and classmates dosed sweets, prompting three hospitalizations; see previous coverage below. Cunningham was originally busted on suspicion of four felonies, but yesterday, he was charged with eighteen carrying the potential of years in jail -- and the same boom will be lowered on Essa today.

According to the Boulder Daily Camera, Cunningham has been named in eight counts apiece of second-degree assault and inducing the consumption of a controlled substance; the figure corresponds to the number of people who consumed the brownies, with three, including associate professor Celine Dauverd, requiring hospitalization. The accusations are topped off by two additional conspiracy counts, since Cunningham and Essa are said to have collaborated on the stunt.

The potential punishment for conviction on all these allegations? The sentencing guidelines for second-degree assault range from two to six years in prison, while the inducing consumption counts could net one to three years in stir.

Even if Cunningham and Essa, who's expected to face identical charges today, were convicted in every instance, the odds of their sentences maxing out, or running consecutively rather than concurrently, are mighty slim. But the size of the book being thrown remains startling, especially considering that Cunningham and Essa are essentially being prosecuted for a stupid joke gone wrong -- one that resulted in no serious or permanent damage to anyone.

Fortunately for all concerned, the district attorney handling the matter is Stan Garnett, who's consistently shown a willingness to be reasonable in quirky cases like this one, including ones that have gotten enormous publicity.

Continue for more about the "pot brownie assault," including a video and booking photos. Example: The incident involving Zoey Ripple, a CU student who was shot in the hip after drunkenly stumbling into the wrong house this past May. Ripple was charged with felony trespassing, which could have netted her five years behind bars. In the end, though, Garnett crafted a plea deal in which she received a deferred sentence; if she stays out of trouble for eighteen months beginning in October, the conviction will be wiped off her record.

Will Garnett opt for something similar in this case? In speaking with the Camera, he defended the number of charges as "appropriate" but added, "Both defendants will get good representation and will work with my prosecutors to find a just resolution."

Cunningham's already been suspended from CU, as well as starring with Essa in a Daily Camera editorial entitled "Brownie Stunt Was Serious," with a subhead adding, "Authorities were right in treating pot 'prank' with gravity." The editorial does, too, viewing the event as a "teachable moment" in the wake of Amendment 64's passage. "If you were previously abstaining from marijuana because it was illegal but would like to experiment with it now, have a frank talk with your physician or psychologist if you are taking any medications, especially if you are being treated for pain or any mental condition," it warns before segueing into a conversation about the pending third go-round for a THC driving bill.

These references show that Cunningham and Essa picked a very poor time to stage such a gag. But that doesn't mean they should be punished more severely than their actions deserve in order to send a message to what someday may be known as the Amendment 64 generation.

Here's a Daily Camera video of Cunningham's trip to court, followed by booking photos of Cunningham and Essa, plus our previous coverage.

Continue for our previous coverage of the "pot brownie assault." In August, CU-Boulder topped the Princeton Review's "reefer madness" list -- a designation that didn't thrill the administration. Perhaps that explains the level of vitriol directed at students Thomas Cunningham and Mary Essa after a prankish decision to feed classmates and their history prof marijuana-laced brownies resulted in hospitalizations, criminal charges and headlines about a "pot brownie assault." What happened? According to the Colorado Daily, Cunningham, a 21 year old from Fort Worth, Texas, and Essa, a Las Vegas nineteen year old, brought the brownies to their Friday morning history class at the Hellems Arts and Sciences building. There were just twelve students in the class, plus the thus-far-unnamed instructor, and plenty of them indulged in the sweet treats.

They soon regretted they had. CU police were called at 10:20 a.m. after the professor began suffering dizzy spells and losses of consciousness. She was taken to a hospital for examination, as were two students -- one who had an anxiety attack and another who felt as if she was going to black out. In addition, a total of eight students reported feeling sick after eating the brownies.

No one doubted that Cunningham -- whose photo posing alongside President Barack Obama has received wide circulation -- and Essa would get in trouble for their stunt. Even so, the response from school officials and cops has been notably harsh. As the Daily notes, the pair were arrested on Saturday on suspicion of second-degree assault and inducing the consumption of controlled substances by fraudulent means (aka, not telling the diners what was in the stuff they were about to swallow), plus conspiracy charges related to the aforementioned counts.

Moreover, CU staged a press conference -- see the video below -- in which university spokesman Bronson Hilliard (disclosure: a longtime friend of yours truly) castigated the "stupid, irresponsible act" and hinted at "serious sanctions," while CU police representative Ryan Huff noted that jail time for the offense was a very real possibility.

Continue for more of our coverage of the marijuana-brownie arrests, including three videos. Will Cunningham and Essa be spending a long stretch in stir for their failed attempt at humor? Doubt it. Although 9News labeled the incident a "pot brownie assault" in coverage also seen here, the station's legal analyst, Scott Robinson, argued that probation is the likeliest punishment, and that sounds about right. It makes sense that the university treat this bit of jackassery seriously, since an epidemic of copy-cat gags will only reinforce the reputation the school has been trying to shed via actions like the crackdown on this year's 4/20 event. But if anyone thinks either Cunningham or Essa set out to harm anyone, or draw this level of attention, well, they're smoking something.

Here are a pair of 9News reports on the case, followed by (correction) a CU Independent video of the press conference.

More from our Education archive: "Photos: CU-Boulder touts 4/20 success despite boundary breech, concert disaster."

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