The conviction of Montana medical marijuana provider Chris Williams, convicted of violating federal law, took another twist on Tuesday when his defense attorney, Michael Donohoe, filed a motion to withdraw from the case.
Donahoe said he believes that when Williams heard about an Ohio State law professor and legal blogger criticizing aspects of the case, his client lose confidence in Donahoe’s ability to present the best defense possible, with sentencing coming up on February 1, reports Eve Byron at the Helena Independent Record
U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen has been asked to set a hearing on Donahoe’s withdrawal from the Williams case, “…given the fundamental disagreement between the undersigned (Donahoe) and the defendant as to what arguments should or should not be made at sentencing the court has no alternative but to hold a hearing in order to get to the bottom of that disagreement,” Donahoe wrote in a motion filed Tuesday in federal court in Helana.
Williams is the only medical marijuana provider from the federal crackdown in Montana to fight prosecution and proceed with a jury trial, saying he was battling for a constitutional principle more than for marijuana. He was found guilty of eight counts in September, four involving marijuana production and distribution, and four counts of having a firearm in connection with drug distribution.
He was a partner in a medical marijuana company based in Helena, but wasn’t allowed to testify about that business before a 12-member jury.
Williams was facing a federal mandatory minimum of between 80 and 90 years in prison, but was offered a highly unusual post-verdict deal where he agreed to not appeal his conviction if prosecutors dropped all but two of the charges. Also dropped was the forfeiture of $1.2 million from the medical marijuana business.
That deal dropped the mandatory minimum to five years, and those involved in the case believe the maximum sentence would be 10 years in federal prison.
Williams wrote in a letter to Judge Christensen that after reaching the settlement, his representative, Kari Boiter of Seattle, was “approached by” Douglas Berman, a prominent criminal law and criminal sentencing professor at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University. Berman also has a popular legal blog and has been profiled in The Wall Street Journal and other publications.
While he believes both Donahoe — who was named Montana Criminal Defense Lawyer of the Year in 2008
— and prosecutor Joseph Thaggard have worked hard, Williams wrote that “the extraordinary circumstances of this case do warrant my taking additional legal advice and possible new legal counsel.”
“Can you please tell me how to proceed?” Williams asked the judge. “I do not feel that the upcoming February 1st sentencing hearing will allow me enough time to prepare and consult additional counsel.”
Judge Christensen hasn’t yet filed any paperwork in response to Williams’ question.
Berman said he had never contacted Williams, and that he only talked to Boiter after she contacted him via his blog. “I have never spoken to Chris and know of my ethical obligation not to do so,” Berman said.
Under Montana law, an attorney can only contact someone already represented by another attorney if the defendant initiates the contact. Even then, it’s customary for both attorneys to discuss the case before any decision is made.
Berman said he never intended to usurp Donahoe. “I’m a full-time professor at Ohio State, and I don’t know if I could (represent Williams) if I wanted to,” he said. “But the legal issues are very interesting and that’s what’s drawn my attention to this case.”
The “new novel ‘sentencing settlement’ for Williams was disturbing from various perspectives,” Berman wrote in his January 2 blog entry, “Plead Guilty Or Go To Prison For Life.” He criticized federal prosecutors, in particular, for dropping 75 percent of the charges after conviction.
“Prosecutors here are not merely nullifying jury convictions, but they are doing so only after essentially blackmailing the defendant to give up his rights to contest his other convictions on aqppeal,” Berman wrote.
Donahoe allowed Williams to be “coerced by the threat of an extreme (and I think unconstitutional) sentence into giving up his appeal rights,” Berman wrote.
As a result of Berman’s blog, and of Berman’s comments to Boiter and others, Donahoe said he was concerned that Williams may decide to revoke his post-verdict agreement with the government, which could possibly lead to a much longer sentence than the five to 10 years he’s facing now.
Donahoe criticized Berman for what he characterized as “giving Mr. Williams false hope,” saying “shame on him.”