Plead Guilty or Go to Prison for Life

The stark choice given a medical marijuana grower highlights the injustice of mandatory minimums.

Chris Williams, a Montana medical marijuana grower, faces at least five years in federal prison when he is sentenced on February 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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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    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...

    This is what I don't understand. How can you have a jury make an informed finding without all the facts?

  • Xenocles||

    Some facts aren't important, like the mitigating ones.

  • Mr Whipple||

    Generally, mitigating and aggravating circumstances are only relevant during sentencing. But, with mandatory minimums, they become completely irrelevant.

  • LiberTarHeel||

    "This is what I don't understand. How can you have a jury make an informed finding without all the facts?"

    Why, by having a fully informed jury that acquits the man without reservation! Prohibition will never be legislated away as long as it's 'profitable' to the RICO warriors. WE have to wrest control back from Leviathan where we can!

  • ||

    Since when does the court want the jury to make an informed finding? What are you even talking about?

    If I am ever seated as a juror ( fat chance that will happen ) and it is a drug case I will vote to acquit no matter the circumstances.

  • gaoxiaen||

    +1 day in jury duty

  • ||

    This is what I don't understand. How can you have a jury make an informed finding without all the facts?

    Since when is it a jury's job to make an "informed finding"? They're there to rubber-stamp a pre-determined "guilty" verdict, nothing more.

  • ||

    "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.

    Shorter quote: Fuck you, that's why!

  • Ted S.||

    "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.

    And yet the prosecutors have no qualms about using such injustice as a weapon in their favor.

  • sarcasmic||

    Winning is more important than justice.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Conviction rate is ne plus ultra, imprisoning people is career-enhancing.

  • Vinny in Chicago||

    Minimums are a result of loony activist judges letting people get out of jail with minimal sentences for heinous offenses. If you stand back put yourself in a different shoe and imagine your at the sentencing of a person who raped your wife, daughter, son, etc. and the judge decides he deserves probation or some minimal time. You would be pissed, but the sentence would be final. The electorate favors minimum sentencing, that's why they predominate federally and in most states. Judges are usually political hacks.

  • z80kid||

    It's unfortunate, but there just doesn't seem to be any way to make judges actually do their jobs.

  • Rick Santorum||

    Yes, there is. It's to bring back extended families and communities. When the government is responsible to the people, you'll see improvement.

  • z80kid||

    IMHO, the biggest problem isn't the mandatory minimums. The biggest problem is allowing prosecutors to combine charges for the same action/event.

    Your honor, the defendant is charged with 25 counts of jaywalking (one for each step it took to cross the street), 1 count of alighting from a motor vehicle with intent to jaywalk, 1 count of crossing a road without looking, 3 counts of creating a public safety nuisance (for crossing 3 lanes).... The prosecution recommends 80 years.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    The efficient transformation of defendants into prisoners cannot be the standard by which we assess our criminal justice system.

    It's the DoJ equivalent of making the trains run on time.

    Kinda makes ya proud to be an American, don't it?

  • Tim||

    Ours is the greatest system on Earth.

  • mrvco||

    ...and getting less greatest all the time!

  • BlueBook||

    To paraphrase Bashir and Garak, all of the defendants are always guilty. The challenge is determining exactly who is guilty of what.

  • Tim||

    Wait till the new gun laws come out. All kinds of formally law abiding people are going to get sent up the river.

  • ||

    Wait till the new gun laws come out. All kinds of formally law abiding people are going to get sent up the river.

    I'm actually a little more optimistic on that one; I think we'll see some degree of nullification on that one.

  • sarcasmic||

    Sure. After the prosecutor makes sure that there are no gun owners on the jury.

  • ||

    Sure. After the prosecutor makes sure that there are no gun owners on the jury.

    I dunno, you think a prosecutor could have struck every prospective juror simply because that person is a gun owner?

  • sarcasmic||

    A prosecutor might allow someone who keeps their hunting rifles in a vault that is opened once or twice a year. However if they catch on that you believe citizens should be allowed to protect themselves with force, I believe they'd strike you in a second.

  • sarcasmic||

    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?

    Because the point is to get convictions.

    Give the defendant a choice between an absurdly unfair sentence or pleading guilty to a lesser crime.

    Presto! Conviction!

  • ||

    If I were given the power to implement just one federal law, it would be one modeled after New Hampshire's law that allows defense attorneys to inform juries of their right to nullify.

  • prairie wind||

    Allows? Requires.

  • FlyingTooLow||

    I spent 5 years in Federal Prison for a marijuana offense.

    Time means nothing to the Feds.

    Once behind that wall, a human being becomes nothing more than a number. Another body to be fed, watered, and sheltered until released...or, until his death.

    A citizen truly does not understand what is being done in our great country until it happens to him.

    Here are the true tales of what is happening...written as comedy...that's the only way to keep your sanity in 'LaLa Land'

    "Shoulda Robbed a Bank"
    "Welcome to Prison--Enjoy Your Stay"

    by Hugh Yonn

  • Vinny in Chicago||

    It only happens to.you if you violate laws.

  • prairie wind||

    Not exactly. If you are falsely accused, you are still stuck between the very long sentence or the long sentence. Plenty of innocent people are stuck in prison because of the power given to prosecutors with the mandatory minimums.

  • Rational||

    Was right there with you. People don't get how it really is.

    Google "just a guy" and "prison report" for some other insights to the "system"

  • buybuydandavis||

    "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"

    That's the worse part. The courts are using evidentiary exclusion to subvert the right to a trial by jury.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Fuck you. That's why.

  • Kirsten Tynan||

    Once again, I think it is important to be clear that according to the Free Chris Williams Facebook posts, Chris Williams STILL faces the possibility of spending the rest of life in prison. That is no longer MANDATORY, but it is still a POSSIBILITY. We know he faces a mandatory minimum of 5 years in prison, but until he is sentenced, we don't know where the judge will rule on the very broad spectrum of the minimum 5 years to the maximum sentence of more years than he has left in his natural life span. The potential for utter catastrophe instead of just major tragedy is still very real.

    Kirsten Tynan
    Philipsburg, MT

  • Carston||

    Anyone else catch that his 16 year old son is a freshmen in college? Sounds like this evil drug peddler is raising a pretty intelligent kid.

  • Vinny in Chicago||

    Correction.....was raising his kid. He's a fool.

  • Vinny in Chicago||

    Undoubtedly he was aware that federal law trumped state law, he chose to be a renegade, which is fine, but what a moron when he has children to take care of. I can imagine he got a lot of good press and a lot dope heads patted him on the back. They're still walking around, he's in the joint. I do wonder if he's as defiant in the joint. What a fool. If you oppose a law, work to change it, don't just violate it. Reminiscent of the dummies who refuse to pay income taxes.

  • z80kid||

    Undoubtedly he was aware that federal law trumped state law <<br /
    It doesn't when the federal law is outside of Congress's enumerated constitutional powers. The criminals here are on the wrong side of the bench, and unfortunately will never see justice for their actions.

    But yes, I'm sure he was aware that he was taking an awful chance with the criminal thugs that call themselves government.

  • Vinny in Chicago||

    I noticed that a post I made which disagreed with the premise of the article has been removed. Evidently by the moderator. I guess Libertarians can be tyrannical also if you don't tow the line! No vulgarity was used be me, just disagreement with the article writers take on things. Portraying the weed grower as a victim. He was an adult who knowingly broke federal law, and he undoubtedly knew federal trumps state laws in that area. My shock at him comes not from his actions, he's a big boy, but in his horrible lack of judgement. He has a child at home, and completely disregarded him. If you oppose a law, you try to change, you don't actively violate it. Unless your willing to go to jail. His motivation will be portrayed as a do-gooder looking to help ailing people, but in reality he supplied overwhelming majority of dope heads with bogus prescriptions. And he made money, probably a lot of money. Mr moderator. Are you a dope fiend and can't deal with disagreement? Libertarian values only go so far huh?

  • écharpe burberry||

    I am agree

  • ||

    If I was on a jury, and the case being tried involved buying/growing/selling or just plain using marijuana,I would simply vote NOT GUILTY! Screw the government. Nullify their unjust laws.

  • Vinny in Chicago||

    Thank goodness your not on a jury. If you somehow are unable to differentiate between what you want and what is, you have anarchical view of society, or as I mentioned before....a lack of society is your goal. People like you rant and rave until you actually would have to live in a society with no societal rules....ie. laws. Your focus undoubtedly is drug use, and you glom onto the associated causes because it furthers your drug use desires. But can you envision a society with puritanical libertarian ways? It would be a harsh, suffocating society for anyone not on your degraded level mentally. We would have to put up with all of the loons antics, crass behavior, and rudeness with no remedy, for individuals are powerless against masses just as individuals are powerless against suffocating massive government. The middle ground with a huge lean toward libertarian ideals is a Republican Party with some big changes. I fear libertarian ideas as much I fear repressive government. They both oppress in different ways.

  • Nixon||

    Vinny--sounds like you are a shill for the feds

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