Tahlequah lawyer ordered to serve prison time

Willis

A federal judge on Tuesday denied a request for leniency and ordered a Tahlequah lawyer convicted of firearms violations to serve 12 months and a day inside a federal penitentiary. 

Haskell Doak Willis, 65, a former state assistant prosecutor described by the U.S. Attorney's Office as "a long-time methamphetamine user," expressed concerns about his age, health and the possibility of being exposed to the novel coronavirus while serving his sentence. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that 1,349 inmates and 163 BOP staffers have tested positive to date for COVID-19. 

The Bureau reported no active cases at the Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, where Doak requested he serve his time in order to facilitate family contact. Doak is to surrender on June 30 to begin his prison sentence, which will be followed by a term of supervised probation. 

Donn Baker, who represents Willis, said he plans to begin the process required for an order for his client's "compassionate release" from prison. Baker described Willis, who was charged for possessing methamphetamine and possessing firearms after being convicted of a felony, as "a high-risk individual" whose "sentence to confinement at a BOP facility could easily be the equivalent to a death penalty."

Baker argued that home confinement secured by an ankle monitor and any additional court-ordered restrictions would satisfy both the intent and purposes of sentencing and protect his client's health. He said his client's physician believes "the crowded conditions of a prison" and Willis' pre-existing conditions would place him "at a high risk to catch COVID-19 and to have severe complications from the infection."

"We don't want to withdraw the plea agreement, we want ... something less than going to the penitentiary that will still get us to the same place," Baker said, acknowledging his client's role in "his own downfall" but noting "just punishment" can be achieved without serving prison time. "You might say I want my cake and eat it, too."    

Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Wilson expressed the bewilderment prompted by Baker's request for a more lenient sentence and comments about the government's response. He said prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Oklahoma's Eastern District "entered into a good-faith agreement" after bargaining for reduced charge and shorter sentence in exchange for Willis' guilty plea.

Court documents show law enforcers seized more than a half-ounce of methamphetamine and 24 firearms found Aug. 26 while executing a search warrant at Willis' home. A federal grand jury issued an indictment on Nov. 7, alleging Willis possessed 24 firearms after being convicted of a felony and methamphetamine. 

Willis was released Nov. 8 after his initial appearance on an unsecured $2,500 bond, but was arrested in January for violating the conditions of his pretrial release and found to be unlikely to abide by any condition or combination of conditions to of release. He pleaded guilty in February to the firearms charge in exchange for prosecutors' agreement to dismiss the drug possession charge and a downward departure from federal sentencing guidelines. 

"The defendants asks for a variance but doesn't want to call it that," Wilson said. "I'm asking the court to accept the plea agreement, which it has done, and sentence him."

Prosecutors, in documents filed by the government, describe Willis' assertions about his health as "speculative."  They say Willis' treating physician failed to factor in the precautionary measures taken by BOP to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at its facilities and the health condition described is not one the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers high risk with regard to COVID-19 infections.

U.S. District Judge Ronald A. White, after considering "the defendant’s history and characteristics, as well as the offense, conduct, need for just punishment, deterrence, and protection of the public," could not find "the circumstances in this case warrant a sentence alteration." While denying the request for monitored home detention, White granted a request that Willis serve his sentence in El Reno to accommodate family contact should BOP reopen its facilities later for visitation.

Willis, who spoke in a soft and somewhat muffled voice, acknowledged his conduct and the embarrassment it caused his family. 

Baker said he plans to initiate the procedures necessary to seek the compassionate release of his client due to ongoing concerns about exposure to the coronavirus. 

In addition to prison time, Willis was ordered to pay a $100 special assessment and subject himself to three years of supervised probation. The Oklahoma Supreme Court issued on June 8 an order of immediate interim suspension of Willis' license to practice law, a fact neither prosecutors nor the defense brought up during the sentencing hearing. 

The Oklahoma Bar Association, according to the court's order, reported four grievances that remain pending in the General Counsel's Office at OBA. Baker said he was unaware of the Supreme Court's order, but Willis is trying to take care of the clients who filed those grievances.

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