Illustration by Eleanor Doughty

A Mother, Serving 15 Years for Marijuana, Makes Last-Minute Plea for Freedom

Crystal Munoz is nine years into a 15-year sentence for possession of marijuana, a crime she says she never committed. With President Obama's time in office coming to an end, she fears this is her last chance for clemency—and her last chance to reunite...

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Jan 17 2017, 6:10pm

Illustration by Eleanor Doughty

In 2007, Crystal Munoz was mothering a four-month-old and pregnant with her second daughter when DEA agents arrived at her Texas home. When she opened the door, Crystal had no idea that answering a few questions would lead to a 20-year prison sentence for marijuana. Her only crime, she says, was drawing a map of a ranch road in Texas's Big Bend National Park, a road that was later used to transport marijuana from Mexico into Texas.

Crystal has spent nearly a decade in prison, and her daughters have grown from newborns to toddlers to adolescents in her absence. She's missed every single birthday as well as first smiles, first steps, and first days of school. Both daughters are now nine; her oldest will turn ten in February. By then, Crystal will know whether the outgoing president—who has admitted to previously smoking marijuana and has publicly stated that it should be treated as a public health issue similar to cigarettes or alcohol—will reconsider her request for clemency. She knows this is probably her last chance to reunite with her children before they're young adults, as Trump's presidency looms ever closer.

The charges against Crystal are serious: Federal prosecutors originally attributed 1000 kilograms of marijuana, 50 kilos of cocaine, and five grams of crack cocaine to her. Though they eventually dropped the cocaine and crack-cocaine charges, she was ultimately convicted for the marijuana. Crystal insists that she had nothing to do with the crimes she's been accused of, and says she only became involved because she was doing a favor for a high school acquaintance who helped her fix her car after another driver crashed into it.

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In 2005, Crystal drove the acquaintance, his wife, and their newborn daughter to Mexico, where she left her car for repairs. "I went on a whim, thinking it would be fun, since I hadn't been to Mexico before," she told Broadly in a message from prison. She also met a few friends of his around the same time. Crystal admits that she was aware that these people were dealing drugs, but she rarely asked questions. Crystal, who is Navajo, does not speak Spanish and so was unable to understand the conversations around her.

Later that year, when her new acquaintances asked her to draw the map and deliver it to a stranger in Midland, Texas, she accepted their explanation that it concerned a ranch dispute over money; at the time, she says, she had no idea the map would be used to circumvent a border checkpoint. "I was not paid to do this, but did it as a favor in return for the help I received on my car repairs," Crystal said.

Later that year, three of these new acquaintances were arrested and imprisoned for trafficking marijuana. "I felt bad for them," Crystal recalled. "[But] I did not think I would be implicated." She was wrong. Two years later, the DEA agents knocked on her door, and she answered their questions, believing their assurances that she was not in trouble. A few months later, they came again, this time to arrest her for conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute.

"I was never a major drug dealer," she said, but admitted that, on occasion, she and various family members and friends would pitch in to buy large quantities of marijuana for their own personal use. However, having seen the ways in which alcoholism and drug abuse devastated the Navajo reservation where she grew up, Crystal limited herself to pot.

It's hard not having their mother there. They cry for her [and ask], 'When is she coming home?'

Crystal's attorney told her that, if she pled guilty, the judge could charge her with all of the drug quantities and that she would not be able to appeal. She decided to take her chances at trial. There, two of the people who were arrested in 2005 testified against her, hoping for sentence reductions. (According to both Crystal and her husband, their sentences were not reduced.)

On December 26, 2007, while she was in jail awaiting sentencing, Crystal gave birth to her younger daughter, Nova. Her husband, Ricky, and their ten-month-old daughter, Sarai, were allowed to be with her. She spent two nights with her newborn baby and family under guard at the local hospital. When it was time for her to return to the jail, Ricky told her that he loved her and then watched as guards placed his wife in handcuffs, a waist chain, and leg shackles. Ricky was left in the room with his newborn and ten-month-old. No one, he said, was willing to help him with the two young babies and the bags of diapers, bottles, and other baby items he had to carry.

"I walked across the parking lot alone with my two little girls, and we've been together ever since," he recalled.

Photo courtesy of Crystal Munoz

Less than one month later, the court sentenced her to 235 months (19 years and 10 months) in prison. Her sentence was reduced to 188 months (15 years and eight months) under a sentencing change known as Drugs Minus Two. But even with the reduction, Crystal still won't reenter her daughters' lives until they are in high school.

Ricky does his best to ensure that the girls stay connected to their mother. Though the federal prison is a five-and-a-half hour drive away, he tries to take them to visit any time he can afford it. But it's not easy—not only does a visit mean an 11-hour drive, but he also has to pay for gas, a motel room, and meals. Prison rules require that all food in the visiting room come from their vending machines, so he easily spends 30 to 40 dollars in the few hours they have together. Altogether, each visit adds up to 300 to 400 dollars, not an easy expense for a single parent. In January, he told Broadly that they hadn't been able to visit for the past six months.

The family relies on phone calls to stay in touch. Crystal is allowed 300 minutes of phone time each month; each call costs three dollars for 15 minutes. She can also utilize the prison's e-messaging system (a very basic form of email) at a cost of five cents per minute. Even so, Ricky says, her absence weighs heavily on her daughters. "It's hard not having their mother there," he said. "They cry for her [and ask], 'When is she coming home?'"

Federal prisons offer video visits, ostensibly enabling families to stay in touch. But Ricky does not have internet at home, so he and the girls go to the library or to McDonald's when they need to get online. In early January, he and his daughters went to the library and tried a video visit, but the connection was too slow. They rushed to McDonald's only to encounter the same problem. Though Crystal could see her husband and daughters on her end, they could neither see nor hear her.

Crystal's experience illustrates the continuing devastation of the drug war and drug war sentencing, even as some states, such as Vermont, Colorado, and most recently Massachusetts, have moved to decriminalize marijuana. Recognizing the damage inflicted by the old drug laws—and the continuing devastation of navigating society with a criminal record, outgoing Vermont governor Peter Shumlin granted pardons to 192 people who had been convicted of marijuana possession under the pre-2013 laws. Pardons expunge a person's conviction from their records, removing any barriers and discrimination they face when applying for jobs, colleges, or government aid. Advocates are hopeful that other states will follow suit.

Presidents, too, have the power to grant clemency to people in federal prisons. They can either grant pardons, which expunge the conviction entirely, or commutations, which lessen the length of the sentence. Some have used their power sparingly. George H.W. Bush, for instance, granted 74 pardons and three commutations despite receiving nearly 1,500 applications. President Obama, conversely, has commuted 1,176 prison sentences, one of the largest uses of executive clemency. Among those commutations were 26 people imprisoned for marijuana, and just 76 women. Still, over 12,000 petitions for sentence commutations are still awaiting a decision.

It's marijuana. People are now making money legally for what she's sitting in prison for.

In September, Crystal's name appeared on the list of people denied clemency. No explanation is offered in such cases, leaving applicants in the dark about how to improve their chances. However, with a president-elect who labeled clemency recipients as "bad dudes" and an attorney general who has publicly railed against criminal justice reform and, this past April, stated, "Good people don't smoke marijuana," her dreams of coming home before her girls hit their teens seem impossible.

"Crystal is one of the few women I've worked with that has an opportunity to reunite with her daughters before they become women, before the grow out of the stage where they need their mothers to be hands-on," reflected Amy Povah, the founder of CAN-DO Justice Through Clemency. Povah, who was initially sentenced to 24 years and four months for conspiracy, received clemency in 2000 and has been advocating for women's clemency ever since. She has worked with 40 of the 76 women who received clemency from Obama—staying in constant contact with them and their families, telling their stories to media, and teaming up with other clemency recipients to create the CAN-DO Guardian Angel Program that connects clemency applicants with supporters on the outside who can help collect letters of support, file paperwork, follow up with the Office of the Pardon Attorney and bring public attention to their stories.

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By granting her clemency, Povah noted, the Office of the Pardon Attorney and the White House have the opportunity to allow Crystal to "salvage the relationship and mend the broken hearts of her children." At the same time, she's both disappointed and baffled by the denial. "It's marijuana. People are now making money legally for what she's sitting in prison for," she pointed out.

But Crystal and her family aren't giving up. Ricky started a Change.org petition, which has received over 81,000 signatures of support. On her end, Crystal is submitting a request for reconsideration before Obama leaves office. Advocates, including over 40 past clemency recipients, are on her side—in an open letter, they urged Obama to re-consider her petition as well as those of other drug war prisoners who had been issued denials. Acknowledging that the clock is ticking, they're also pressing the outgoing president to take a much more bold and far-reaching step: a large-scale amnesty program for drug war prisoners, allowing people to return home early and, for those sentenced to life in prison, reducing their sentence to no more than 20 years.

If Crystal could speak directly to the president, she would ask for clemency not for herself, but for her family. "My spouse needs my help and companionship, our children deserve to know and experience the love and care of their mother," she said. "I would plead with him to help us have [a] chance to live a normal life, to be reunited and grant mercy for not just me, but my husband and children."