Inside the Russell Smith Federal Courthouse in Missoula on Feb. 1, dozens of Chris Williams' supporters stood when the former Montana Cannabis partner was escorted into the courtroom in handcuffs to be sentenced on federal drug and weapons charges.
Some of Williams' friends wept. Others clenched their hands. The lingering smell of marijuana hung in the air. Across the aisle, federal Drug Enforcement Agency agents stared straight ahead.
The scene inside the courthouse was as unusual as the post-conviction agreement that prosecutors and defense attorneys crafted in Williams' case. Montana Cannabis was once among the largest dispensaries in the state. After federal law enforcement raided the operation in 2011, the Department of Justice indicted Williams and his former partners on felony drug and weapons charges. Three of the partners pleaded guilty and asked the court for leniency. Williams, however, refused to admit guilt. Williams maintained that he operated legally under Montana's medical marijuana law. The innocent plea, Williams said, constituted a protest of federal marijuana policy.
"The main reason that I went to trial is because I felt it was my duty," Williams said during the sentencing hearing.
In September, a jury found Williams guilty of eight felony counts. Federal sentencing laws mandated that Williams face upwards of 80 years in prison. The prospect of Williams spending the remainder of his life in jail mobilized marijuana advocates who launched a White House petition that called to "Free Chris Williams" and garnered more than 27,000 signatures. Many in attendance at his sentencing hearing arrived via a green "Cannabus" that was arranged by his supporters.
In December, when prosecutor Joseph Thaggard agreed to drop six of the eight charges against Williams and waive a $1.7 million forfeiture requirement, speculation swirled about whether the public pressure influenced the peculiar sentencing agreement.
During Williams' sentencing hearing, Judge Dana Christensen shed light on the agreement. Christensen said he was the one who called attorneys together to hash out a more suitable punishment for Williams. "An 85-year sentence in this case would simply be unjust," Christensen said.
On the remaining gun charge, Christensen sentenced Williams to five years in prison. The drug count will be satisfied by the time Williams has already served. In exchange for the deal, Williams agreed to give up his right to appeal.