Keith Richards Guilty — But Free

Guitarist convicted of heroin possession, but other charges dropped

Keith Richards Rolling Stones
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns
Keith Richards at the Hilton Hotel in Brussels, Belgium on May 6th, 1976.
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In a surprise decision here October 24th, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards received a one-year suspended sentence and was placed on a year's probation after pleading guilty to a reduced charge of possession of heroin. Charges of possession of cocaine and possession of heroin with intent to traffic, which could have resulted in a life sentence for Richards, were dropped.

Heroin possession in Canada carries a maximum sentence of seven years, and jail terms are customary, but in sentencing Richards, York County Judge Lloyd Graburn said, "No incarceration or fine would be appropriate because of Mr. Richards' continuing treatment for drug addiction and his long-term benefit to the community, to the large community." The announcement brought cheers and applause from the approximately seventy-five spectators and reporters crowded into Courtroom Five of the County Court Building.

The stipulations of Richards' probation include maintaining a clean criminal record, continuing his treatment for heroin addiction at the Stevens Psychiatric Center in New York City, and reporting to his Toronto probation officer in May and September of 1979 with progress reports from the Stevens Center. Richards was also ordered to perform a benefit concert — by himself or with a group — for Toronto's Canadian National Institute for the Blind, a favorite charity of the judge's, within the next six months.

In his suite at the Four Seasons Hotel after the sentencing, Richards said he was "very happy with the outcome." When asked if the trial went as planned, he said, "I think so, although I wasn't sure until the last. You can never tell about these things, and at least they got me bail money back so I can get the band up here to do the benefit show." He added that the Stones have no definite plans regarding the benefit, future LPs or tours, but "it's full steam ahead for the Stones now."

Judge Graburn's verdict ended twenty months of speculation on the fate of Richards, who was arrested February 27th, 1977, while the Stones were in Toronto to record part of their Love You Live album. Royal Canadian Mounted Police agents raided Richards' suite at the Harbour Castle Hilton while he was sleeping, and seized twenty-two grams of thirty-two-percent-pure heroin, five grams of cocaine, and narcotics paraphernalia. Richards admitted to the arresting officers that the drugs were his and that he had been addicted to heroin for the previous four years. He was charged with possession of heroin with intent to traffic and with possession of cocaine. He was then released on $25,000 bail.

The trial began on an unexpected note on October 23rd, when Richards, dressed in a three-piece tan suit, white socks and scuffed brown shoes, a gold earring adorning his left ear, elected trial by judge instead of jury and then pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of possession of heroin and not guilty to the other two charges. The prosecution accepted the plea and then dropped the trafficking and cocaine charges, an action that stunned court observers here, since the Canadian government had originally planned to seek the maximum penalty — life imprisonment for intent to traffic, which, in Canada can mean merely offering a drug to someone.

Crown Prosecutor Paul Kennedy told Rolling Stone that he agreed to the reduced charges because "cocaine is a lesser drug, and the officers may not have questioned him closely about that [RCMP agent Bill Seward, who arrested Richards, has since died in a car wreck]. Also, I agreed to drop the trafficking charge because they built a very nice case for his personal habit."

Nonetheless, Kennedy sought a jail term of six to twelve months for Richards. He based his request on five major points: 1) the sheer quantity of heroin involved, 2) Richards' previous use of heroin, including a 1973 conviction in England, 3) the fact that Richards is a mature adult, not a teenage drug experimenter 4) the accusation that the Stones, through their music and lifestyles, have encouraged drug use and 5) previous Canadian cases in which persons found guilty of having much smaller quantities of heroin had been jailed.

Richards' attorney, Austin Cooper, built his case slowly, first establishing that Richards had been an addict on and off since 1969, that he had built up a habit of two and a half grams of heroin a day, and that he had tried several times to take the cure but had gotten "back into the caldron" under the enormous pressure of recording and touring. Cooper added that Richards has been off heroin since May 1977, when he entered the Stevens Center.

Cooper then extolled the Stones in general, and Keith in particular, as the world's greatest rock & rollers. He even went so far as to have Toronto native Lorne Michaels, producer of Saturday Night Live, take the stand and testify that Keith Richards is "the catalyst of the band."

"Keith Richards is an intensely creative person who is often wracked with emotional pain," said Cooper. "He had a poor self image, problems with other people. His everyday life can be hell." Cooper quoted from a biography of Baudelaire to the effect that art is created from "pieces of the shattered self. Witness our modern greats. Van Gogh was a schizophrenic and cut his ear off. Aldous Huxley was a drug addict." Cooper then compared Richards' life with the personal problems suffered by Sylvia Plath, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Finally, Cooper said there would be only two reasons for jailing Richards: one would be to break his drug habit; the other would be if he had resorted to crime to support his habit. Cooper produced documents showing that Keith had broken his habit, and added that Richards was considering raising $1 million for an unspecified drug rehabilitation program. Then he cited Richards' living expenses for the past three years — $175,000 in 1975, $300,000 in 1976 and $350,000 in 1977 — to show the unlikelihood of Keith turning to crime for money.

"The public interest would best be served by allowing him to prop up his sagging personal life, to continue his musical work and to continue his treatment," Cooper concluded.

Judge Graburn apparently agreed. In his verdict, which took fifty-five minutes to read. he said that Keith Richards was not a criminal although he was an addict, that he should not be jailed for addiction and wealth, and that although the Stones have encouraged drug use in their songs, "Keith Richards' efforts have been moving him away from the drug culture, and this can only encourage those who emulate him. Because of all these facts, no jail or fine is appropriate."

Prosecutor Kennedy said he did not object to the sentence and that it was too early to think about filing an appeal. "If you get a member of the Rolling Stones off heroin," he said, "you've done some good."

This is a story from the November 30, 1978 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 279: November 30, 1978
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