News & Features

Whitefish Man Re-sentenced for Arson after Supreme Court Reversal

James Wallace Langley was sentenced to the Department of Corrections for trying to burn down his girlfriend’s home

A Whitefish man accused of setting his ex-girlfriend’s house on fire received a suspended sentence to the state Department of Corrections more than a year after the Montana Supreme Court overturned his previous sentence.

Flathead County District Court Judge Robert Allison sentenced James Wallace Langley on Aug. 10 to 11 and a half years with the Department of Corrections, with all time suspended, and credit for 293 days served. Langley will have to pay more than $2,500 in restitution.

According to court records, Langley set his girlfriend’s house on Highland Drive on fire on Oct. 8, 2013. DNA evidence later connected Langley to the scene of the crime. He was charged with felony arson in February 2014 and initially pleaded not guilty.

In January 2015, attorney Jack Quatman and prosecutors crafted a deal in which 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, 2015. 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, 2015, 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, 2015, Langley was sentenced to the Department of Corrections.

Exactly five months after his sentencing, on Nov. 11, 2015, 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. In it, he argued that Langley’s sentencing was illegal because the court violated the sentencing process as required in Montana Code Annotated.

In their ruling, issued in early 2016, justices Beth Baker, Mike McGrath, Patricia Cotter, James Jeremiah Shea and Michael Wheat agreed with Langley’s attorney and stated that Judge Allison did not properly follow the required procedures for rejecting a plea agreement. Soon after the ruling, Langley filed a motion to withdraw his plea. Allison granted the motion and Langley was set to stand trial sometime in 2017.

In May 2017, Langley’s attorney and prosecutors crafted a plea agreement where the defendant would plead Alford to one count of felony criminal mischief and one count felony criminal endangerment. An Alford plea occurs when a defendant maintains and asserts their innocence but acknowledges that the prosecution has enough evidence that, if presented to a jury, could result in a conviction.