Whitefish Man Appeals Sentencing in Arson Case

James Wallace Langley was sentenced to 10 years with the Department of Corrections for arson earlier this year

By Justin Franz

A Whitefish man sentenced to the Department of Corrections after he set his ex-girlfriend’s house on fire is appealing his conviction to the Montana Supreme Court.

An attorney for James Wallace Langley argues that Flathead County District Court Judge Robert Allison violated the law when he rejected Langley’s motion to withdraw his plea shortly before sentencing earlier this year.

Langley was sentenced to 10 years with the Department of Corrections with five years suspended on charges of felony arson stemming from a 2013 fire in Whitefish.

According to court documents, the Whitefish Fire Department responded to an early morning fire on Oct. 8, 2013 on Highland Drive. One of the residents told police that a flash outside their window woke them. When they looked into their yard they found an oil can and the siding of the house on fire. The resident put the fire out, but later the man noticed smoke was coming out of the light fixtures.

The homeowners told detectives that they believed their daughter’s ex-boyfriend, Langley, had set the fire. Langley denied the allegations and let police take a DNA sample from him. Later, Langley admitted that he was at the victims’ house early Oct. 8. The DNA evidence Langley voluntarily gave later connected him to the oil can and he was charged with arson on Feb. 3, 2014.

In January, attorney Jack Quatman and prosecutors crafted a deal where Langley would enter a plea of no contest and the state would recommend a six-year deferred sentence. Langley entered his plea in front of Judge Allison on Jan. 22. A no contest plea is entered when defendants acknowledge that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them but still maintain that they are innocent.

At the initial sentencing hearing, however, Judge Allison told Langley and his attorney that he would not follow the plea agreement because of the seriousness of the crime. Allison said he would give the defendant more time to come up with testimony as to why he should be given a deferred sentence and the sentencing was postponed. On April 20, Langley filed a motion to withdraw his plea. In the motion, Quatman argued that Allison displayed a bias when he likened lighting someone’s house on fire to firing randomly into a home with an assault rifle and that it was clear he has “very strong personal feelings concerning arson.” Judge Allison later denied Langley’s motion to withdraw.

On June 11, Langley was sentenced to the Department of Corrections and he has since been incarcerated in Missoula County.

Exactly five months after his sentencing, on Nov. 11, Attorney Colin Stephens filed an opening brief with the Montana Supreme Court requesting that Langley’s sentence be overturned and that he be allowed to withdraw his no contest plea.

“The relief requested is necessary because the district court did not follow the plea agreement and also did not provide Langley with the required opportunity to withdraw his plea prior to imposing sentence,” Stephens wrote. “Langley’s sentence is illegal because the district court violated the sentencing process required in Montana Code Annotated.”