Pubdate: Fri, 28 Sep 2012
Source: Helena Independent Record (MT)
Copyright: 2012 Helena Independent Record
Author: Eve Byron


Chris Williams, who wanted to challenge the federal government over 
its handling of medical marijuana prosecutions in Montana, was led to 
jail in handcuffs Thursday after 12 jurors convicted him of eight 
drug- and firearms-related charges.

Williams sat quietly and unemotionally, with his hands folded on the 
table in front of him, as the three men and nine women, their voices 
shaking at times, told the court that their verdict was unanimous.

His attorney, Michael Donahoe, requested that Williams not be 
detained until sentencing, noting that he's already working on an 
appeal to the Ninth Circuit.

"I pray for his release pending sentencing and ultimately the 
appeal," Donahoe said. "I don't think he poses any risk of flight or 
danger to the community."

However, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen said he had 
little choice in the matter due to the seriousness of the charges.

"We have a conviction on eight counts; those counts - and I 
understand there will be an appeal - carry with them significant 
mandatory minimum (sentences) that, as I read the applicable 
statutes, would run consecutively, arguably, in this case," 
Christensen said. "I also read the law as it relates to detention 
pending sentencing following a conviction in these sorts of charges. 
Quite frankly, I don't feel I have a whole lot of choice in this matter."

Still, Christensen said that he will hold a detention hearing as soon 
as Donahoe files a motion requesting one.

Williams was charged with four felonies involving conspiracy and the 
cultivation and distribution of marijuana, as well as four related 
charges regarding possession of a firearm while drug trafficking. It 
was the first test case in Montana of federal prosecution for medical 
marijuana providers operating under Montana law.

The jury debated almost six hours before reaching a verdict. Earlier 
Thursday, Williams said he was prepared mentally for what could be a 
minimum of 45 years in prison. To him, the case isn't about drug 
trafficking and guns; instead, it's about the rights of citizens and 
states to make laws and not just abide by rules created at the federal level.

"This is about citizens' rights under the United States 
Constitution," Williams said.

By a 62 percent majority, Montana voters passed the Montana Medical 
Marijuana Act in 2004. In 2009, after federal officials - including 
the U.S. attorney general and President Barrack Obama - said that 
prosecuting cases in states with medical marijuana laws would be a 
low priority, Williams and three partners set up shop.

Williams said they believed the statements by federal officials 
granted them immunity from prosecution, as long as they followed 
Montana state laws. He said they set up a legitimate business model 
in 2009 that would be the "gold standard" for other medical marijuana 
providers to follow.

He added that they had an open door policy, hosting tours for 
legislators, law enforcement officers and even the chief narcotic 
officer for the state. They hired accountants, paid taxes and tracked 
all of their plants "from the time they had roots to their harvest" 
and as well as when they were being packed and distributed.

By early 2011, close to 30,000 people held cards certifying that they 
had a medical condition that fell under the auspices of the Medical 
Marijuana Act, and federal officials decided to try to rein in the 
burgeoning businesses. The Helena greenhouse and 25 other medical 
marijuana dispensaries in 13 cities in Montana were raided in March 
24, 2011. About 950 plants were taken from the Helena facility, and 
$1.6 million was seized from Montana Cannabis bank accounts.

Williams said his was probably the easiest trial ever for 
prosecutors, since he took the stand Wednesday and stated outright 
that he was the "farmer" for Montana Cannabis, which operated from 
2009 to 2011 at the old State Nursery west of Helena. The business 
also had stores in Billings and Montana, as well as an outdoor grow 
operation at the Miles City home of Richard Flor.

However, Williams wasn't able to tell the jurors anything about the 
Montana Medical Marijuana Act since Christensen ruled that marijuana 
remains a Schedule 1 drug under federal law; as such, possession, 
cultivation and distribution of it remains a federal crime. Montana 
laws, he added, weren't pertinent to the case and he didn't allow any 
mention of them before jurors or as a defense.

Donahoe has stated that he believes the federal government is guilty 
of entrapment of his client, and will appeal on that basis and others.

In closing arguments before the jury Thursday morning, Donahoe 
focused on the four charges involving the firearms rather than the 
marijuana production and distribution since Williams had readily 
admitted to it.

"It would be foolish for me to stand here and tell you Mr. Williams 
wasn't engaged in growing marijuana. He was in the business of 
growing marijuana," Donahoe said. "The evidence will show you, and 
the pictures show you, he had a greenhouse, work schedules, bank 
accounts and deposit slips. The nature of the business was all made 
clear to banking authorities.

"So what are we here to talk about? The firearms."

Donahoe said that the pistol Williams sometimes wore in a holster 
around his waist was for the protection of himself and his employees, 
and is allowed under the Second Amendment. He added that Assistant 
U.S. Attorneys Joe Thaggard and Paulette Stewart hadn't made any 
connection between Williams and seven guns found at the Helena 
greenhouse, or with the 20 guns confiscated during the raid at the 
Flor house. He added that they never did find Williams' gun.

"In the traditional criminal sense, were the guns necessary to 
transfer marijuana from one person to another? I submit to you 
there's no evidence to that. No customer testimony. Nothing," Donahoe said.

Thaggard, however, said that not only did Williams bring his own gun 
to work, he allowed at least two other employees to have them on the 
premises, in close proximity to the marijuana. At least one of them 
cradled a 44-caliber that was so big it was described by a witness as 
a "hog's leg" while a patient was purchasing marijuana at the Montana 
Cannabis office.

"Drugs are being sold and Dan Nichols is sitting there with the gun 
in his lap," Thaggard said. "What was that being used for?"

He added that he believes the guns were used to protect the plants 
and the finished product from people who might want to steal them.

Thaggard also told jurors that it was "reasonable and foreseeable" 
for Williams to know that when drugs were involved, guns probably 
would be present. In addition, he stated that when Williams and other 
employees went to the Flor house to harvest marijuana, all of them 
carried a gun.

"It just doesn't make sense for the defendant to come in and say to 
you 'It wasn't foreseeable to me that Richard Flor would have guns,'" 
Thaggard said. "He had them in the vicinity of drugs and you use them 
to protect the drugs."

Williams' partners - Flor, Thomas Daubert and Chris Lindsey - all 
have taken plea bargains in connection with similar charges brought 
against them. Flor was sentenced to five years in prison, but died in 
jail from medical problems. Daubert received a five-year probationary 
sentence and Lindsey is waiting to hear his fate. Both Daubert and 
Lindsey testified at Williams' trial both for the defense and prosecution.

Prior to the verdict, Donahoe had requested a mistrial after Thaggard 
compared Williams and his partners to dogs in front of the jury.

In his closing statement, Thaggard said that Williams was involved in 
criminal conduct and when he did that, he would get involved with bad people.

"If you lie down with dogs, you just might get fleas, and you can't 
say you didn't know that would happen," Thaggard said.

Donahoe objected, but was overruled by Christensen. However, after 
the jury left the courtroom, Donahoe moved for a mistrial based on 
the statement.

"The government's argument, which is not supported by evidence, is a 
vilification of the people who testified," Donahoe said. "He said 
they are guilty because they are animals. That's a violation of the 
Due Process clause and the Sixth Amendment.

"There's no character evidence for any of these people to imply there 
is and to draw attention to that matter is inappropriate."

However, Christensen denied the motion.
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