HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The man known as "Hilo's pot preacher" changed his plea to guilty in U.S. District Court Friday morning, but unlike most plea agreements, Roger Christie still has the right to appeal certain rulings.
"There are issues of what's called first impression and I think the District Court felt that some of these issues should be decided by a higher court so everybody has some clarity on those. We're very positive about the issues that we can present to the 9th Circuit," described Christie's attorney, Thomas Otake.
64-year-old Christie has been locked up at the Federal Detention Center since he was arrested in July of 2010 – and even though he could be free in the next six months, Otake says he's prepared to take his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if he has to.
"The appeal, if granted, means the case would be dismissed. You know, you can't go back in time and undo the three and a half years he's done so far, however, it would mean a lot for the appellate court to come forward and say that he was justified all along," explained Otake.
Christie pleaded guilty Friday to one count of drug crime conspiracy and two counts of failure to file income tax returns.
According to Christie's indictment, he was growing and distributing marijuana through THC Ministry, or the Hawai'i Cannabis Ministry, in Hilo.
"We believe – from the wire-tap investigation, the undercover investigation that we did in this case – the religious idea is merely a front that camouflaged a long-term marijuana trafficking operation. Bottom line, you take away all the ministry and what you have is a person acting just like a drug trafficker. In any other way, shape or form, the kind of person that the controlled substances act was designed to prohibit," described U.S. Attorney Michael Kawahara.
Otake says that's not the case.
"The District Court judge in this case has ruled as a matter of law that the THC Ministry is a legitimate ministry and that Roger and Sher were sincere in those beliefs," explained Otake.
According to the plea agreement, 284 marijuana plants, equating to 28.4 kilograms of pot, were seized from Christie's Hilo farm in July of 2009. Federal prosecutors allege Christie was making a profit off of marijuana users eager to sign up for the ministry because it gave them access to pot.
"He mentioned that he would make special arrangements – special orientation – for people on cruise ships who are just here for one day. Well, why would they want to become members? Because that's the other benefit of becoming a member, you're eligible to get what he called sacrament – that is to say, marijuana. But you had to pay for it. None of the marijuana was free," said Kawahara.
Otake says any suggestion the Christie's were profiting off their ministry is not true.
"Those donations, whatever so-called profit that came of it was used to simply keep the church running, but it wasn't a situation where Roger or Sher were getting rich or making money off of this. Not at all," Otake said.
According to Otake, Christie was persuaded to work with prosecutors on a deal, because of recent rulings that would have prevented him from putting on the defense they wanted at trial.
"The plea agreement also has Roger being sentenced somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 months. With his credit for time served and the way that sentences are calculated, he should be released in the next six months or seven months," Otake explained.
Christie was never granted bond. Kawahara says Christie's detention was justified on three separate occasions by the District Court and the 9th Circuit because he is a danger to the community.
"He is the leader and organizer of this particular ministry. He was the one that came up with the idea and he had the opportunity to correct his behavior when the first searches in these cases were made in March of 2010. He elected, however, to go forward and re-start up the ministry again, such that when we searched the second time in July of 2010, the ministry was in full force and effect again," explained Kawahara.
Christie's wife, Sherryanne Christie, also plead guilty in court Friday to one count of drug crime conspiracy. Both admit to knowingly and intentionally conspiring to growing, possessing and distributing marijuana. When addressing the judge today, both followed their guilty pleas, by reading the following statement: "However, I reserve the right to appeal that my actions were permissible pursuant to the 'Religious Freedom Restoration Act'."
Christie's attorney says he pointed out time and again in a variety of motions that 19 states have legalized marijuana for religious use and two states have completely legalized it, but to no avail.
But Otake does believe a recent memo from Attorney General Eric Holder indicating marijuana prosecutions should not be a priority for the federal government helped pave the way to a plea agreement.
"There's a wave of change coming across the nation as it relates to marijuana laws and Roger is excited to be a part of that and he thinks that his case here has helped that cause, and he looks forward to continuing to fight and continuing to support that cause as a free man here shortly," Otake said.
Per the agreement, Christie also forfeited $21,494 and his Hilo apartment.
Sentencing is scheduled for next January. In the meantime, Christie will remain in federal custody, while his wife Sherryanne is free on bond and has the court's permission to return to their farm in Hilo.