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.