I've broken some news before, but informing someone that she received clemency from the president was a first.
Last night, after the White House announced 15 pardons and commutations, I texted congratulations to Crystal Munoz, whose term of supervised release was commuted by Donald Trump. Trump had already commuted her 15-year prison sentence for a marijuana offense earlier this year, and I had previously interviewed her about medical neglect inside federal prisons.
To my shock, she hadn't heard yet. I had figured the White House, or someone, would have told her. I don't know what her face looked like, but mine was a mix of surprise and mild horror at being the bearer of such important news.
After a brief moment of panic and triple-checking to make sure I hadn't misread the name on the White House press release, I sent her a screenshot of the announcement. (Full disclosure: When I skimmed the press release I initially mistook "commutation" for "pardon," which have different legal meanings—significantly different if you're the recipient—but Munoz was excited about the news nonetheless.)
Clemency advocates have been fighting hard over the last several months to secure more commutations and pardons for nonviolent drug offenders before Trump exits the White House, and last night's announcement—also filled with commutations and pardons for cronies, corrupt politicians, and mercenaries convicted of murdering Iraqi civilians—underscored both their progress and the uncertainty they're working under. It's a weekly game of "will he or won't he" with the mercurial president. Advocates have put forward lists of deserving clemency and pardon candidates, and they're all optimistic that more commutations are coming down the pipe, but they don't know when, or even if, any of those names will be announced.
Trump also commuted the terms of supervised release of two other women whom he had already granted clemency: Tynice Nichole Hall and Judith Negron. These commutations are unusual and significant because they recognize the onerous burden that post-incarceration supervision places on former inmates. The commutations will allow Munoz, Hall, and Negron to live more normal lives.
In another significant move, Trump granted a full pardon to Weldon Angelos, whose excessive drug sentence was a cause célèbre among criminal justice advocates seeking to roll back mandatory minimum sentences.
Last night I also called Angelos, who was in the midst of celebrating.
He was not surprised. Angelos had gotten a heads up about his pardon earlier that day from Sen. Mike Lee (R–Utah), who had been instrumental in bringing attention to his case back when he was incarcerated.
"I broke down when I heard the news earlier today from Senator Mike Lee," Angelos says. "It's a fresh new start for me, a chance to live life without being branded a felon, having that F-word stamped on me every time I fill out an application, whether it's for a loan or apartment or house or anything. It feels good. It doesn't give back everything I lost from this prosecution. All the money, my career, my son's time, my father's time before he passed, but this definitely is the next best thing, and I'm deeply grateful to President Trump for granting this and to those who supported me."
In 2004, Angelos received a 55-year mandatory minimum sentence for selling marijuana to an undercover police officer on three occasions. Because he was carrying a pistol in an ankle holster during one of the sales—he never brandished it or showed it—and had the gun close to him during the other two, prosecutors tacked on three counts of using a firearm in the course of a drug trafficking offense. Under the inflexible federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, the judge was forced to sentence Angelos, a first-time drug offender, to 55 years in federal prison. (For comparison, Angelos would have served less time under the guidelines if he'd hijacked an airliner or kidnapped someone.)
The sheer insanity of Angelos' sentence would lead Lee, then a federal prosecutor in Utah, and the judge who sentenced him to become advocates for his release. After Lee was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010, Angelos became Exhibit A in the case for rolling back mandatory minimums, and specifically the firearm enhancement that led to his five-decade sentence. In 2016, Angelos was freed from federal prison in a deal cut by federal prosecutors, and in 2018 Congress passed the First Step Act, which bars prosecutors from stacking firearm enhancements, as they did in Angelos' case.
Like Alice Johnson, another formerly incarcerated person whose life sentence for a drug crime was commuted by Trump, Angelos is now a criminal justice reform advocate. He's working to free other marijuana offenders serving extreme sentences, and he recently delivered a list of 25 people incarcerated for cannabis-related offenses to the White House.
"We're hoping that some people from that list will be coming down very soon and we're getting really good feedback as well," Angelos says. "I'm hopeful that President Trump will continue to grant second chances and show compassion to these people."