Conviction: Conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 1000 kilograms of marijuana.
Sentence: 18 years
Facility: FMC Carswell, a federal facility in Ft. Worth, Texas
Crystal Munoz, a 38-year-old Navajo mother of two young girls, was sentenced to almost two decades for drawing a map of a road in Big Bend National Park on a piece of notebook paper – a favor, she says, for some friends. These friends would end up using that map to circumvent a drug checkpoint in a large marijuana trafficking operation. Later, they testified against her hoping for more lenient sentences. It's not clear if they succeeded, but Munoz is nine years into an 18 year sentence for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 1,000 kilograms or more of marijuana.
That's a lot of pot. But she maintains that any role she might have played in the operation was minimal. "The map was on a peice of notebook paper and with arrows/lines for the road. It was not very sophisiticated [sic]," she writes from Carswell, a minimum-security women's prison.
Despite her allegedly small role, she faced a very long sentence. That's because when a person is charged with conspiracy, all the government has to do to hook a defendant for all the drugs sold is to have witnesses testify against them. They don't ever have to have been caught with drugs.
"That's where you get the 'drugless' drug cases,' where there's no drugs in evidence," Eric Sterling, the former congressional staffer who helped draft mandatory minimums back in the 1980s, says. In theory, this is meant to take down kingpins, who are less likely to get caught with drugs on them than lower-level dealers. But the higher up someone is in an operation, the more information they can trade for reduced sentences. Meanwhile, mid-level people might not be too eager to testify against the real ringleader, especially if they're violent. "I wouldn't want to identify the kingpin because what if he finds out I ratted him out and kills my family?,' says Sterling. "So I make up a story, or help the government entrap someone."
At first Munoz had considered pleading guilty, which would have triggered a 10-year mandatory minimum. But her lawyer cautioned that she could also get 30-to-life, and if she pled guilty she'd lose her right to appeal. So she took her chances at trial, and lost.
Pregnant during her trial, she delivered her daughter as a federal prisoner. "I remember the day I gave birth to her," she writes. "I knew I would have to leave when my hospital stay was up. I did not sleep, I stayed up the whole time holding her … She was abandoned by her momma, but not by my will. One day I was just gone."
When Crystal was brought back to the holding facility she cried and screamed until an officer demanded she calm down. "I cried quietly after that moment. I stayed crying for days in my cell."
As Broadly reported in January, Munoz was one of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders hoping to have their sentences commuted before President Obama left office as part of his clemency initiative – her husband Ricky thought the former president might be sympathetic because he has two daughters of his own.
Although Obama granted 1,715 commutations, most for nonviolent drug offenders, Munoz wasn't one of them.
For a while, Ricky was too scared to tell the kids that Crystal had been denied. "When they found out they were just in shock. They really believed she would get out," he says. "They were so excited."
Crystal can't fathom why people get put in prison for nonviolent crimes.
"Hundreds of people I have encountered over the years, beautiful people, who made a mistake, some who have been imprisoned for 2 decades and will die imprisoned, for their part in a drug conspiracy," she says. "It's hard, and I try to make sense of it all, but there came a point when I just stopped trying to understand. You can't."