The Right Opinion

Plead Guilty or Go to Prison for Life

The Medical Marijuana Grower's Stark Choice

By Jacob Sullum · Jan. 2, 2013

Chris Williams, a Montana medical marijuana grower, faces at least five years in federal prison when he is sentenced on Feb. 1. The penalty seems unduly severe, especially because his business openly supplied marijuana to patients who were allowed to use it under state law.

Yet five years is a cakewalk compared to the sentence Williams originally faced, which would have kept the 38-year-old father behind bars for the rest of his life. The difference is due to an extremely unusual post-conviction agreement that highlights the enormous power prosecutors wield as a result of mandatory minimum sentences so grotesquely unjust that in this case even they had to admit it.

Of more than two dozen Montana medical marijuana providers who were arrested following federal raids in March 2011, Williams is the only one who insisted on his right to a trial. For that, he paid a steep price.

Tom Daubert, one of Williams' partners in Montana Cannabis, which had dispensaries in four cities, pleaded guilty to maintaining drug-involved premises and got five years of probation. Another partner, Chris Lindsey, took a similar deal and is expected to receive similar treatment. Both testified against Williams at his trial last September.

Williams' third partner, Richard Flor, pleaded guilty to the same charge but did not testify against anyone. Flor, a sickly 68-year-old suffering from multiple ailments, died four months into a five-year prison term.

For a while, it seemed that Williams, who rejected a plea deal because he did not think he had done anything wrong and because he wanted to challenge federal interference with Montana's medical marijuana law, also was destined to die in prison. Since marijuana is prohibited for all purposes under federal law, he was not allowed even to discuss the nature of his business in front of the jury, so his conviction on the four drug charges he faced, two of which carried five-year mandatory minimums, was more or less inevitable.

Stretching Williams' sentence from mindlessly harsh to mind-bogglingly draconian, each of those marijuana counts was tied to a charge of possessing a firearm during a drug trafficking offense, based on guns at the Helena grow operation that Williams supervised and at Flor's home in Miles City, which doubled as a dispensary. Federal law prescribes a five-year mandatory minimum for the first such offense and 25 years for each subsequent offense, with the sentences to run consecutively.

Consequently, when Williams was convicted on all eight counts, he faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 80 years for the gun charges alone, even though he never handled the firearms cited in his indictment, let alone hurt anyone with them. This result, which federal prosecutors easily could have avoided by bringing different charges, was so absurdly disproportionate that U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter offered Williams a deal.

Drop your appeal, Cotter said, and we'll drop enough charges so that you might serve “as little as 10 years.” No dice, said Williams, still determined to challenge the Obama administration's assault on medical marijuana providers. But when Cotter came back with a better offer, involving a five-year mandatory minimum, Williams took it, having recognized the toll his legal struggle was taking on his 16-year-old son, a freshman at Montana State University.

“I think everyone in the federal system realizes that these mandatory minimum sentences are unjust,” Williams tells me during a call from the Missoula County Detention Facility. But for prosecutors, they serve an important function: “They were basically leveraging this really extreme sentence against something that was so light because they wanted to force me into taking a plea deal.” Nine out of 10 federal criminal cases end in guilty pleas.

The efficient transformation of defendants into prisoners cannot be the standard by which we assess our criminal justice system. If the possibility of sending someone like Chris Williams to prison for the rest of his life is so obviously unfair, why does the law allow it, let alone mandate it?

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18 Comments

Howard Last in Wyoming said:

Anyone know which section of the Constitution gives the federal government any say on drugs?

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 12:51 AM

Anton D Rehling in Olympia, WA said:

TYRANNY PLAIN AND SIMPLE

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 6:12 AM

Stephen in NH said:

A fully informed jury would have set this man free. Unfortunately, the number of citizens aware of their rights as jurors is likely as dismal as the number of citizens willing to step forward and hold members of the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of government accountable to their sworn oath. See http://oathact.us/
That number clearly shows apathy has become the pestilence of an entire nation.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 8:59 AM

Army Officer (Ret) in Kansas said:

If there is even the slightest hint of ambiguity: never, Ever, EVER vote to convict a defendant if you're on a jury. Plain and simple. And even if there is no ambiguity, never vote to convict a defendant for anything that should not be a crime, such as possession of a firearm or anything related to drugs or consensual sex.

Don't say why. Just say "Not guilty."

Know this: in all likelihood the prosecutor has tried, and probably succeeded, in having SOMETHING suppressed - and that is something that you as a juror do not see. You will not know WHAT information was withheld from you, and you probably won't even know THAT information was withheld from you. The mere fact that prosecutors and judges keep relevant information away from the jury is enough to create reasonable doubt:

EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

You cannot make an informed decision unless you see and weigh ALL the relevant facts. Allowing the prosecution to suppress anything is enough to render you unable to decide guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt," which is a VERY high hurdle indeed.

99% of prosecutors are scum.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 10:58 AM

Howard Last in Wyoming replied:

Army Officer, the jury also has the right to judge the law as well as the defendant. Any crime based upon a law that is not authorized by the Constitution is not valid. Even the Supremes said the above. A good place to start would be so called counter-fitting crimes. The Constitution gives Congress the authority to regulate currency. There is no authority to give this power away to an un-elected board that meets in secret. So if you are on a jury considering a case of someone copying Federal Reserve Notes, you have to vote to acquit. At most it is copy-wright infringement or fraud.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 11:18 AM

Army Officer (Ret) in Kansas replied:

Counterfeiting is fraud, though, as the counterfeiter is attempting to pass along something of value (currency), when the item itself is not what it represents. I think we would agree that the Federal Reserve engages in massive counterfeiting every day - especially as the creation of fiat currency is itself an exercise in counterfeiting, but that's a subject for another day.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 11:47 AM

Rod in USA replied:

Well, I agree, but I would also say that the defense gets a lot of stuff suppressed as well.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 11:36 AM

Army Officer (Ret) in Kansas replied:

That's true, but surely you can see the difference(?).

The defense is not trying to persuade you to send a presumably innocent person to prison: the prosecutor is. The burden of proof is on the state - so if they want you to side with them, they need to provide you with everything - period.

"Not guilty" is a legal term that does not mean actually innocent. It means that the state has not met the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The state cannot meet that burden if they hide information from me and judges allow them to do so without informing me that they have done so.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 11:52 AM

Rod in USA said:

I think the federal government should not be over-riding state government. This bothers me a lot because as strongly as I feel about that, I am equally against illicit drugs of any kind.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 11:34 AM

Howard Last in Wyoming replied:

Rod, which is worse, going against the constitution or drugs? Going against the Constitution is many orders of magnitude worse than selling drugs. One affects some people, while the other will bring down our Republic.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 12:40 PM

richard ryan in Lamar,Missouri replied:

Howard, agreed! Also, if a woman has the "right" to murder her unborn child because it`s her body, surely I should have the right to smoke a joint of weed since it`s my body. Let me make clear that I am against the use of drugs. It`s just that it should be none of the government`s business, either federal or state, as to what I choose to ingest. That should be a moral question, not a legal question. When it comes to things like that, I am a libertarian.

Thursday, January 3, 2013 at 10:40 PM

XCpt in the ether said:

Unfortunately the legal system has been successful in reducing the perspective of the jury to deciding if a law was broken or not. Is the person guilty or not-guilty of breaking the law. I don't believe this was the intent of a trial by jury.

I would place pretty high odds that if you were arrested for breaking the law that you did and you are guilty of that. But there are times when the law is not just and a trial by jury is supposed to give us the opportunity to present our case to a jury of our peers, other citizens, to let them determine if our actions, while against the law were also justified. Would 12 people in the same situation act the same way? Is the law that was broken something that should be enforced?

A trial by jury should not be about if the person is guilty or not guilty but if it is justice to punish them for what they did. Until justice is accepted as the defining measurement, over guilt, then a jury trial will be nothing more than a charade of two legal teams trying to manipulate the truth about what really happened and why.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 2:02 PM

Army Officer (Ret) in Kansas replied:

The difference is that one side has the ability and legal authority to kill you - for anything. That may sound like hyperbole, but it's not. Let's say that I understand that the 16th Amendment was improperly ratified (it was). Let us further say that - even it had been ratified properly - nothing in that amendment overrides the 4th Amendment's provision exempting my affairs from government scrutiny except by subpoena.

Now let's say I decide to prevent agents of the government from violating my specifically-enumerated rights as a U.S. citizen "to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures... and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

The "legal" system will side with the thugs in blue, so my only option would be to prevent them myself. If I push it far enough I end up with a S.W.A.T. team at my house. Let's not forget, F.B.I. assassin Lon Horiuchi murdered Vicki Weaver because her husband was alleged to owe $200 in taxes. At the end of it all: Vicki Weaver was dead, F.B.I. assassin Lon Horiuchi and all his supervisors and accomplices got away with premeditated murder (no government agents were even reprimanded), the government spent millions of dollars in an attempt to recoup $200, and the government eventually admitted that the $200 tax was levied in error in the first place.

When one side has the ability to imprison you for life, coerce you into pleading to something you didn't do, and ultimately commit murder with impunity, forcing that side to carry a high burden of proof seems like the very least we can demand.

Sorry, XCpt - I've know too many cops to trust them to do the right thing. Drunks, liars, thieves, cheats, bullies (LOTS of those), perjurers, evidence-planters: all hiding behind the "Blue Wall of Silence" that assures that only the most flagrant abusers will ever face the laws they enforce - and then only if their misdeeds becomes known outside the L.E. community - and not always even then.

So if I'm on a jury and a cop says, "The defendant did something bad - I saw it with my own eyes." My question is, "Is there a credible source for that accusation? I only ask because I haven't heard from one yet."

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 4:30 PM

richard ryan in Lamar,Missouri replied:

Army Officer: My kudos to you on your posts. They are extremely informative. You and I agree on cops. Here in our little town just about any yokel off the streets can be hired as a police officer. You may have seen the three characters on the Newhart show called Larry, Darrel, and Darrel. In Lamar we have three cops on the force that I call Opie, Barney, and Barney. Our two daughters were both married to cops at one time. One was lazy and dumb as a rock, and the other was a psycho. Both of them are poster boys for a lot of cops.

Thursday, January 3, 2013 at 10:49 PM

XCpt in the ether replied:

I think you missed the point of my comment. Regardless of how corrupt the system was to get you to trial the people on that jury are no longer considering the premise of justice in determining if you are guilty or not guilty. The initial plea itself is biased - did you do it or not - versus did you have a reason to do it and would 12 other people see that reason as justified for breaking the law.

When the trial by jury system has been manipulated only to evaluate evidence of guilt then the value of justice is lost as they are not making a determination on if the breaking of that law was justified.

If a trial by jury was still a viable option to determine if breaking a law was justified then no amount of plea bargaining, tainted or withheld evidence, or other sweetened deals would have any value because a jury of my peers would be able to reach a conclusion that what was done may have been against the law, but the conditions justified the breaking of that law and the finding would be not-guilty.

Friday, January 4, 2013 at 10:55 AM

Old Guy in California said:

Case like this don't say much for the "ethics" of the prosecuters, do they?

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 5:29 PM

p3orion in Midland, Georgia said:

The jury system was put in place because the founders wisely envisioned that sometimes laws would not serve the public the way they were intended. Although judges routinely instruct jurors that they must consider ONLY whether the defendant broke the law as written, this is not true.

Research the term "jury nullification" which is the act of a jury finding that a law is not just. It is completely within the rights of a jury to use this power, and is indeed their duty when the justice would otherwise be a cause of injustice.

However, attorneys understandably prefer to have more complete control over the options a jury possesses. Thus simply working the phrase "Jury nullification" into the conversation is a quick ticket off jury duty.

Thursday, January 3, 2013 at 11:01 AM

p3orion in Midland, Georgia replied:

Oops, make that "when the justice SYSTEM would otherwise be a cause of injustice."

PatPost, how about adding an edit function?

Thursday, January 3, 2013 at 11:02 AM