By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
“Get a grip; we are zero ‘frightened,’” wrote jailed cannabis minister Roger Christie in an email sent to the Tribune-Herald on Wednesday in the wake of news that he and his wife, Share Christie, had accepted a plea deal with prosecutors in their federal marijuana distribution case.
Christie’s attorney, Thomas Otake, said that if all goes well at a Friday change-of-plea hearing, his client could be a free man “in approximately six months.”
Otake wrote in an email that he didn’t want to “get into specifics of the plea agreement until it is actually accepted by the court on Friday.” He said that if the plea deal is accepted Share Christie would be able to remain free while her case is on appeal.
Roger Christie’s The Hawaii Cannabis (THC) Ministry in downtown Hilo and Wainaku apartments were raided by the feds and local police on March 10, 2010. According to court documents, authorities confiscated approximately 845 grams of processed marijuana from the apartment, plus $21,494 cash found in a safe in the apartment and in a bank safe deposit box. The money and apartment face possible federal forfeiture.
The Christies and 12 others were charged with conspiracy to manufacture, distribute and possess with intent to distribute 284 marijuana plants, which carries a mandatory minimum prison term of five years and a maximum of 40 years if they’re convicted.
The others were granted bail, but U.S. Magistrate Kevin Chang ordered Roger Christie held without bail, calling him “a danger to the community.” He has been incarcerated at the Federal Detention Center in Honolulu for 3 1/2 years, and pending the plea deal, was scheduled for trial on Oct. 8.
U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi ruled in July that the Christies “may rely upon their religious beliefs to counter the element of ‘intent to distribute’ in … charges alleged against them,” but earlier this month denied their motion to use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which allows certain Native American religions to use the hallucinogens peyote and ayahuasca as sacraments, at trial.
Otake wrote that despite “the federal court declaring that the THC Ministry is a legitimate religion, the court recently issued several rulings that severely affect Rev. Christie’s constitutional right to a full and fair trial.”
“Instead of proceeding to trial disadvantaged by these rulings, Rev. Christie has decided the best course of action for his ministry, his cause, and his family at this time is to enter into a conditional plea agreement,” Otake wrote. “The plea agreement allows him to appeal these adverse rulings to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the United States Supreme Court if necessary. Rev. Christie is as motivated as ever to continue this fight, and is energized by the prospects of taking the fight to the next level. He has never denied distributing cannabis for religious purposes, and will admit to such conduct as part of his plea agreement. However, in his appeal Rev. Christie will continue to assert his belief that such activities were permissible and legal.”
Wrote Roger Christie: “We know how our judge rules; denying me reasonable bail, accepting the Schedule 1 (classification) for marijuana as rational, denying suppression of our unconstitutional wiretap evidence, denying us reasonable religious rights, denying us our RFRA motion.
“… Now that all the important issues have been removed from trial, what’s the point of a trial? The importance of keeping all the above issues ALIVE and growing towards an appeal in San Francisco is what’s primary. We can appeal from prison or from home. The choice was EASY.”
“I love my husband and he had the last say,” Share Christie wrote in the same email. “I still wanted to go to court, but I see the larger picture of us plea-bargaining. … anyway I’m grateful that we get to fight for the larger picture of this. [to End the war on drugs] for many of you that it’s hard to understand written law, federal law especially, this is quite unusual that we get to appeal even though we’re doing the plea bargain.”
Two states — Colorado, where Roger Christie was born, and Washington — have legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana for adult personal use while Christie has been incarcerated, and the feds have said they won’t challenge those laws.
A Hawaii bill that would have legalized up to an ounce of pot for adult personal use died in the House Judiciary Committee during this year’s legislative session.
The case of the 64-year-old Christie has garnered national attention, and local marijuana advocates have called for his release, saying his lengthy pretrial detention without bail violated his constitutional rights.
Of the Christies’ co-defendants, all but two have made plea deals with the prosecution. They are: Susanne Lenore Friend; Timothy M. Mann; Richard Bruce Turpen; Donald James Gibson; Roland Gregory Ignacio; Perry Emilio Policchio; John Debaptist Bouey III; Michael B. “Dewey” Shapiro; Victoria C. Fiore; and Jessica R. Walsh, aka Jessica Hackman.
One co-defendant, Aaron George Zeeman, has not pleaded guilty. His trial is scheduled for March 11, 2014. He is also facing a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge in Hilo Circuit Court.
The final co-defendant, Wesley Mark Sudbury, has been a fugitive for more than three years. A warrant for his arrest was issued in August 2010.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Kawahara, the prosecutor in the case, did not return a phone call by press time.
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.