HELENA — The strange saga of Christopher Williams and his marijuana conviction took another twist Tuesday after his defense attorney Michael Donahoe filed a motion to withdraw from the case.
It’s not that Donahoe, a senior litigator with the Federal Defenders of Montana, doesn’t want to remain on the case.
However, Donahoe believes that after Williams heard about an Ohio State law professor and legal blogger criticize aspects of his case, his client lost confidence in Donahoe’s ability to present the best defense possible as sentencing looms on Feb. 1.
Donahoe has asked U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen to set a hearing to Donahoe’s withdrawal from the 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 Helena.
Williams is the only medical marijuana distributor in Montana to fight federal prosecution and proceed with a jury trial, saying he believed that matter was more of a constitutional issue than over marijuana. He was found guilty in September on eight counts — four involving marijuana production and distribution, as well as four counts of having a firearm in conjunction with drug distribution.
Williams was a partner in a Helena-based medical marijuana company, but wasn’t allowed to testify about the business before a 12-member jury, which was a possible issue to appeal.
He faced a mandatory minimum of between 80 to 90 years in prison, but was offered a surprising post-verdict plea deal, where he agreed to not appeal his conviction if prosecutors dropped all but two of the charges as well as the forfeiture of about $1.2 million from the medical marijuana business. That dropped the mandatory minimum sentence to five years, and those involved in the case believe the maximum sentence would be 10 years.
In a letter to Christensen, Williams wrote that after reaching the settlement his representative, Kari Boiter, was “approached by” Douglas Berman, a nationally recognized criminal law and criminal sentencing professor at the Moritz College of Law at the Ohio State University. Berman, co-author of a casebook on sentencing law and policy and has been profiled or discussed “at length” in various publications, including the Wall Street Journal, also has a popular legal blog, according to the university website.
Williams wrote that while he believes both Donahoe and prosecutor Joseph Thaggard have worked hard in this case, “the extraordinary circumstances of this case do warrant my taking additional legal advice and possible new legal council.”
“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.”
Christensen hasn’t filed any paperwork in response to Williams’ question.
Reached by phone from Ohio Tuesday, Berman said he had never contacted Williams either by phone or email, and 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 state law, an attorney only can contact someone already being represented if the defendant reaches out to the person. Even then, it’s customary that both attorneys discuss the situation before any decision is made on how to proceed.
Berman added that he has the greatest respect for federal defenders and prosecutors, and while he ex-pressed a willingness to help with the sentencing aspect of Williams’ case, he said he never intended to usurp Donahoe.
“I’m a full-time law professor at Ohio State, and I don’t know if I could (represent Williams) if I wanted to,” Berman said. “But the legal issues are very interesting and that’s what’s drawn my attention to the case.”
In his Jan. 2 blog titled “Plead Guilty or Go to Prison for Life,” Berman wrote that the “new novel ‘sentencing settlement’ for Williams was disturbing from various perspectives.” In particular, he criticized federal prosecutors for dropping 75 percent of the charges after conviction.
“Prosecutors here are not merely nullifying many jury convictions, but they are doing so only after essentially blackmailing the defendant to give up his rights to contest his other convictions on appeal,” Berman wrote.
He also wrote that Donahoe allowed Williams to be “coerced by the threat of an extreme (and I think unconstitutional) sentence into giving up his appeal rights.”
Donahoe is concerned that as a result of Berman’s blog, as well as his comments to Boiter and others, Williams may decide to revoke his post verdict agreement with the government — which could possibly lead to a much longer sentence than what he’s facing now. The conviction also could be reversed or remanded upon appeal, but that typically is a lengthy process.
Donahoe hasn’t filed an appeal yet, but previously said he anticipates doing so and made various points during the trial to set the stage for that if needed.
In the meantime, he wants to move forward with what he sees as a straightforward sentencing hearing.
“… there is nothing complex about Mr. Williams’ upcoming sentencing,” Donahoe wrote in court documents. “And if Mr. Berman is telling Mr. Williams that there is, then shame on him for impeding the administration of justice and giving Mr. Williams false hope.”