Yesterday Chris Williams, the Montana medical marijuana grower who was facing life in prison, agreed to a highly unusual post-conviction deal with federal prosecutors that could allow him to serve five years instead. His sentencing hearing before U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen was scheduled for January 4, and
Under the agreement, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Montana will drop six of the eight counts on which Williams was convicted. Those include three counts of using firearms in furtherance of a drug crime, based on pistols and shotguns kept at the Helena grow operation where Williams worked. Although Williams never wielded the weapons, let alone hurt anyone with them, those three counts alone added 75 mandatory years to his sentence. The dropped charges also include one for conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana, one for manufacturing marijuana, and one for possession with intent to distribute. The remaining two charges are one count of possession with intent to distribute, which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison, and a single count of using firearms in furtherance of a drug crime, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years (whereas each of the additional gun charges triggered a 25-year mandatory minimum). In exchange for a 87-year reduction in the prison term he otherwise would have faced for the original gun and drug charges, Williams agreed to drop his appeal. He explained his decision this way:
It was not easy for me to give up my constitutional fight, but as I navigate this complex federal penal system, it has become clear that punishment is the only thing that is guaranteed.
With the rest of my life literally hanging in the balance, I simply could not withstand the pressure any longer. If Judge Christensen shows mercy and limits my sentence to the 5-year mandatory minimum, I could be present at my 16-year-old son’s college graduation. This would most likely be impossible had I rejected the latest compromise.
During his trial, Williams was not allowed to mention Montana's medical marijuana law, which is deemed irrelevant under federal law. His partners at Montana Cannabis have received sentences ranging from probation to five years in prison. The huge variation in penalties for essentially the same actions, from no time to the life sentence Williams originally faced, gives you a sense of the enormous power that mandatory minimum sentences and the ability to stack charges give prosecutors. In this case, Williams' punishment for insisting on his right to a trial was so absurdly unjust that even the prosecution felt compelled to admit it. But if the possibility of sending someone like Williams to prison for the rest of his life is so obviously unfair, why does the law allow it, let alone mandate it?