In what appears to be an abrupt turnaround, federal prosecutors have agreed to drop six of eight felony charges against former Montana Cannabis partner Chris Williams. The deal means rather than serving upwards of 80 years in prison, Williams could do as few as five. The prosecution also agreed to waive a $1.7 million forfeiture requirement. In exchange, Williams agreed to forego his right to appeal.
Since Williams had already been found guilty in September on charges that ranged from drug distribution to firearm possession while drug trafficking, the prosecution's move marked an unusual, if not unprecedented, deal that left local defense attorneys scratching their heads.
"As far as I know, this has never happened," says Chris Lindsey, Williams' former Montana Cannabis partner and a Missoula attorney who specializes in marijuana cases.
Mike Sherwood, a Missoula lawyer who's practiced law for more than 35 years in federal courts across the country, echoes Lindsey's surprise. "It is unprecedented, as far as I know," he says.
The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment for this article, making it tough to say exactly what prompted prosecutors to support the unusual deal. Some observers, including Montana NORML Executive Director Justin Michels, speculate that mounting public outrage contributed to the decision.
"It's absolutely the political pressure," Michels says. "His case being in the public eye, it really brings it to a head."
During the past several months, Williams' case has garnered national attention. By the time prosecutors agreed to the plea deal, more than 27,000 people signed a petition posted on the White House's website that called to "Free Chris Williams." Filmmaker Rebecca Richman Cohen, meanwhile, raised $35,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to continue chronicling Williams' prosecution as part of her evolving documentary film, Code of the West.
Now that Colorado and Washington state have legalized recreational use of marijuana—going so far as licensing and taxing marijuana providers—the federal government's treatment of Williams seemed even more draconian, Michels says.
In contrast, the prosecution's recent decision in the Williams case seems to be a bellwether indicating a progressive shift in federal drug policy.
"I think it's a huge change in tide," Michels says.
Williams will be sentenced Feb. 1. In order to seal the deal, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen must then approve the plea agreement.