Pubdate: Wed, 02 Jan 2013
Source: Chicago Sun-Times (IL)
Copyright: 2013 Sun-Times Media, LLC
Author: Jacob Sullum


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

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 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

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

Williams' third partner, Richard Flor, pleaded guilty 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 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. 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. This result was so absurdly
disproportionate that U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter offered Williams a

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. 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.

"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," Williams told me. 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? 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jo-D