Chris Williams, a co-defendant of mine in the federal prosecution of several medical marijuana businesses in Montana, recently responded to a Salon article on prosecutions in the state, written by former counsel to Montana Governor Schweitzer. In his letter, published by Toke Signals, Chris went on the attack, blaming a lot of people for his current prison term.
I certainly don’t fault him for being angry at the system that put him there, and there is little justice in the justice system where the war on marijuana is concerned. But along the way, he accused me and another former partner, Tom Daubert, of being confidential informants in the case.
As usual, spectators on the Internet were quick to weigh in and express shock and outrage. What many who are not familiar with the case do not realize is that the allegations are simply wrong.
It is true there were confidential informants at the business, which Tom and I left well before the federal raid. If Chris had read the 8,000 pages of evidence the federal government had gathered in its case, he would have seen the informants’ lengthy, detailed, and likely exaggerated claims about Chris’ activities. These were people he hired, who worked for him, and one even had a close, romantic relationship with him while she reported his activities to DEA agents in detail.The first time I spoke with anyone working for the federal government was nearly a year after being charged. By that time, my attorney secured an agreement with the U.S. attorney’s office ensuring I would not be compelled to talk about anything that could be considered a violation of attorney-client privilege. In fact, given the scope of their investigation and my departure date 14 months prior to the raid, the U.S. attorney’s office knew quite a lot more about the organization than I did.
A confidential informant is a person who works undercover for law enforcement to report activity the government might find interesting. It is usually a role taken by someone who could get in trouble in their current situation, and law enforcement uses the threat of prosecution as leverage to get him or her to report inside information. Unlike the confidential informants in the case, I was charged with eight felonies, just like Chris.Chris Williams, Tom Daubert, and I were each given the same plea agreement offer, and based on discussions with our attorneys, we all knew that a conviction was all but certain before Chris’ trial began. There were many pre-trial motions to either dismiss the case or allow us to talk about state law. We tried to get the judge’s permission to talk about promises made by the Obama Administration. All of these efforts failed, and our fate was sealed well before the jury was selected.
The mandatory minimum Chris and I faced was around 85 years, and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Montana told my lawyer that if I went to trial, the only way I was getting out of prison was “in a pine box.” If that threat was not enough to keep me from going to trial, they would prosecute my wife, and our eight-year-old son would be raised by someone else.
Considering there was no defense to the charges, I agreed to plead guilty. After the failure of our pre-trial motions, it came down to simple math – hoping to get out of a life sentence by rolling the dice on a long-shot appeal did not make a lot of sense. I have to assume that while he didn’t say so, Chris was probably hoping for jury nullification.
After I was subpoenaed by the fed to testify against Chris at his trial, I did my best to emphasize how open, honest, and professional the organization was. We all lived and worked under trying and dangerous circumstances.
I talked about our record-keeping, our goal to help improve the law, and the tours we gave to law enforcement, prosecutors, the press, and state legislators. I suspect that the next day, at about the time the federal prosecutor started piling 28 firearms on the table in front of the jury – guns seized during their March 14 raid of two locations – any chance of jury nullification, if there ever was one, was gone.
It also didn’t help that Chris hired one of the most notorious criminals in recent Montana history to work as armed security for the grow facility some time before the raid.
Once the prosecutor’s case was made, Chris asked me to testify on his behalf, which I was more than happy to do. His attorney was already building his case for appeal, and I was able to offer plenty of testimony specifically for that purpose.
The jury was excused at the request of the federal prosecutor, and I talked about how we did everything we possibly could to be in compliance with state law – even consulting with law enforcement and county attorneys. The following day, Chris testified on his own behalf, and during the cross-examination by the prosecutor, he admitted to everything he was charged with.
As with every other federal case I know of against state-legal medical marijuana business owners, Chris was convicted. We were not surprised, and it was a tragedy in a nation in which 77 percent of the population thinks marijuana has legitimate medical uses, and 60 percent believe medical marijuana should be available as an option to patients without federal interference in state law.
Fortunately, Chris Williams was able to get himself a plea agreement to reduce his mandatory minimum sentence from 85 years to just five. Unfortunately, the compromise he had to make was to waive his right to appeal – undercutting what he said was his purpose in going to trial in the first place.
I wish he had taken the plea deal we all were offered. Chris might be on probation today instead of sitting on a five-year sentence.
In the end, Chris got a plea agreement like no other defendant in U.S. history, a previously unheard of post-trial deal that simply dropped all but one of his convictions. Why would the prosecutor agree to walk back seven felonies after all that effort, and why would the judge allow this precedent-setting change in the case?
I hope the testimony Chris, Tom, and I gave about the open, honest, and professional organization we created in order to help sick people at least contributed this outcome, and it might just help similar defendants in the future – also facing mandatory minimum sentences in an unfair justice system.