The Last Place on Earth may have been a revolting place, but that didn’t make the business illegal, defense attorney John Markham told jurors Wednesday in the federal trial involving the downtown Duluth head shop.

The Last Place on Earth may have been a revolting place, but that didn’t make the business illegal, defense attorney John Markham told jurors Wednesday in the federal trial involving the downtown Duluth head shop.

As prosecutors tried to show jurors that store owner Jim Carlson and two others attempted to defraud the government by misbranding and selling illegal drugs, defense attorneys argued that it was quite the contrary.

“Surely, Mr. Carlson could be convicted of one thing if it was illegal: being open, obnoxious, notorious and transparent about his business,” Markham said.

Now it’s up to jurors to decide. After hearing more than four hours of closing arguments, and more than an hour of legal instructions, the seven-woman, five-man panel got its first crack at deliberating late Wednesday afternoon.

The case, in its third week, went to the jury at 4 p.m., giving jurors just an hour to convene before recessing for the evening. Deliberations will pick up again this morning. The jury will not meet Friday, meaning the verdict could get pushed back to next week if it is not decided today.

Carlson, 56, is charged in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis with 55 federal crimes stemming from the sale of products that he commonly called incense and bath salts, which government attorneys say actually were illegal controlled-substance analogues. His girlfriend, Lava Haugen, 33, and son, Joseph Gellerman, 34, face four counts apiece.

Wednesday started with prosecutor Surya Saxena and three defense attorneys delivering closing arguments with strikingly different messages.

In his argument, Saxena told jurors that the defendants knowingly violated federal laws — or at least avoided knowledge of the laws — because their business was extremely profitable.

“All of the evidence that you have heard suggests the defendants tried to mislead the government and wanted products that they knew mimicked controlled substances so they could make a lot of money, and kept doing it because it was so successful,” Saxena argued.

Saxena introduced the legal concept of willful blindness — the idea that although the defendants may not have specifically known they were breaking the law, they went out of their way to avoid realizing that their actions were illegal. Ignorance of the law is not an acceptable defense, he said.

Saxena also spoke frequently of the defendants “carrying forward a pattern of dishonesty,” evidenced by products that were labeled “not for human consumption,” despite common knowledge that they were synthetic drugs.

“No one could have walked into the store without knowing what they were there for,” he said. “Everyone in Duluth knew what they were doing.”

Defense attorneys, meanwhile, argued that the entire trial has been an ambush by the government and said none of the evidence suggests that the defendants are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Randall Tigue, Carlson’s attorney, asked jurors to consider that the person they most respect in life had been accused of committing the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and asked what it would take for them to believe that person was guilty.

“Not only does the evidence in this case not meet Texas Chainsaw Massacre standards, but every bit of it points to the exact opposite conclusion,” Tigue said.

Tigue told jurors that they could not convict the defendants under the Federal Analogue Act because of ongoing debate in the scientific community over the legal term “substantially similar.” Jurors must find that the defendants knew the products were substantially similar in both chemical composition and pharmacological effects to return on a guilty verdict on those charges.

The store and its employees were not responsible for misbranding, Tigue said, because that responsibility falls on the distributor. And, above all else, the defendants were consistently led to believe by the government that the products were legal, he argued.

“The evidence does not show that Mr. Carlson knew or avoided the truth,” Tigue said. “As a point of fact, he sought out knowledge.”

Attorneys for Haugen and Gellerman both questioned in their closing arguments why their clients were even named in the indictment, portraying them simply as store employees. Minneapolis-based attorney Charles Hawkins, representing Gellerman, said his client was a “lowly clerk,” earning $8 an hour and following his employer’s orders.

“This case is one of the most graphic and dramatic examples of why an accused is presumed innocent in a court of law that I have ever seen,” Hawkins said. “They’ve got all the resources of the U.S. government aligned for one thing: to convict that young man.”

Markham and Hawkins had filed motions Tuesday asking that Judge David S. Doty dismiss charges against their clients because of a lack of evidence against them, but Doty did not grant the request. It’s typical for defendants to be tried together in federal cases. Doty, however, advised jurors that they must consider the evidence against each defendant separately and return separate verdict forms for each.
Haugen waived her right to be present in the courtroom for the verdict, citing her multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia. Carlson also asked for a waiver, but Doty denied it after an objection from prosecutors, who indicated that they may ask to have Carlson immediately taken into custody if found guilty.