Could President Obama be on the verge of commuting the sentences of hundreds, even thousands of non-violent drug offenders sentenced under draconian, and now-defunct, mandatory minimum laws?
It appears so. Criminal justice reform advocates have wondered for years why a president who claims to be concerned about our seriously flawed system of justice has been less willing to pardon and commute sentences than hard-nosed conservatives like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, the former governor of tuff-on-crime Texas.
Part of the reason, as this Pro Publica article spells out, is that few petitions for clemency reach the president’s desk. Ronald Rodgers, who heads the Office of the Pardon Attorney, is an ex-military man and former federal prosecutor who has little sympathy for convicted felons.
But why hasn’t Obama sacked Rodgers long ago if the Pardon Attorney’s policies are incompatible with the president’s wishes? Lord knows, the president has taken a lot of heated criticism over this issue over the years.
It could also be argued that Democratic presidents are vulnerable to charges of being soft on crime; but in recent years, reform has become a bi-partisan issue. I suspect the libertarian wing of the Republican party has done more to further concrete reform legislation than purported liberals over the course of the last decade. So the fear-of-backlash theory doesn’t wash.
How can mere mortals understand the workings of a US president? It is like grappling with the problem of evil–the ways of the Almighty are inscrutable.
But, whatever the explanation, there are rumors afoot that Rodgers is on his way out and that the merciful rhetoric we have been hearing from Obama and his Attorney General Eric Holder in recent years may finally translate into action.
DUBLIN, Calif—Scrawled on the inside of Barbara Scrivner’s left arm is a primitive prison tattoo that says “Time Flies.”
If only that were the case.
For Scrivner, time has crawled, it’s dawdled, and on bad days, it’s felt like it’s stood completely still. She was 27 years old when she started serving a 30-year sentence in federal prison for selling a few ounces of methamphetamine. Now, 20 years later, she feels like she’s still living in the early ’90s—she’s never seen or touched a cellphone, she still listens to her favorite band, the Scorpions, and she carefully coats her eyelids in electric blue eye shadow in the morning.
It’s out there, outside of prison, where time flies. (more…)
Ramsey Muniz is a seventy year-old man who walks painfully with the assistance of a cane. He once ran for Governor of Texas; now he is housed in a federal prison built for gang members. Ramsey has served almost twenty years for his alleged role in an imaginary drug deal that was produced and directed by the federal government. Even if you think he is guilty, compassion and common sense dictate a humanitarian release. But Mr. Muniz and thousands of other applicants for clemency and commutation are routinely rebuffed by the office of the president. As law professor Mark Osler observes, Barack Obama has been far less willing to utilize his pardon pen than was the tough-on-crime Ronald Reagan. Mr. President, how about some change we can believe in.
Under President Obama, the odds of clemency or commutation are shamefully slim.
If President Obama follows tradition and pardons a turkey this week, it will be a ceremony rich in irony. While the president has been a regular dispenser of clemency to fowl, he has not been so generous to humans. It is time for that disjuncture to end. (more…)
Barack Obama has rarely used his power to pardon offenders and to commute sentences. Most likely, he sees little political upside to a public show of mercy to persons who have been defined as criminals. This issue matters to Friends of Justice in a personal way because we work with death row inmates like Curtis Flowers and Ramsey Muniz, a seventy year-old Latino leader serving a life sentence for a non-existent narcotics conspiracy.
Professor Mark Osler, a Friends of Justice board member who teaches law at the University of St. Thomas, is a leading authority on pardon and commutation issues. Like me, he wonders why Barack Obama has been so stingy with his pardon pen.
Osler has recently addressed this pressing issue in two articles, a brief Huffington Post piece and a journal-length essay, “A Biblical Value in the Constitution: Mercy, Clemency, Faith, and History” which can be downloaded here. The longer piece is the best introduction to the “Is America a Christian nation?” debate I have seen. Here’s his conclusion:
America may not be a “Christian nation,” in the way that some would like, but it remains a “nation of Christians,” where a substantial majority of citizens look to Christian principles and teaching to inform their morality. The effort to see the Constitution as an expressly religious document is doomed by the text of the thing itself. However, that does not mean that Christians such as myself cannot celebrate and promote those parts of the Constitution that reflect and embrace our central values. Of all the Constitution, the part that most clearly reflects the values of Christ is the pardon clause. It enables a person, the president, to grant mercy. Seen properly as not only a tool of the executive but a lever of God’s will, clemency should be embraced as a profound, important, and regularly used power of the man or woman in whom we invest so much trust.
This Pro Publica report recently appeared in the Washington Post. The story focuses on the story of a single inmate, Clarence Aaron, but his plight is hardly unique. Consider these depressing realities:
The number of pardons awarded has declined sharply in the past 30 years, as have commutations. Obama has rejected nearly 3,800 commutation requests from prisoners. He has approved one. Bush commuted the sentences of 11 people, turning down nearly 7,500 applicants . . .
Between 1980 and 2010, requests for commutations rose sharply, reflecting lengthier sentences and the elimination of paroles for federal inmates, while the number of successful applicants plummeted.
Under Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, both two-term presidents, one applicant in 100 was successful. Under Bush, approvals fell to barely better than one in 1,000.
The work of the pardon office has come under heightened scrutiny since December, when ProPublica and The Washington Post published stories showing that, from 2001 to 2008, white applicants were nearly four times as likely to receive presidential pardons as minorities.
Why have American presidents become progressively unwilling to show compassion? As the article below suggests, bureaucratic logistics is part of the problem. Writer Dafrna Linzer is critical of “the extraordinary, secretive powers wielded by the Office of the Pardon Attorney, the branch of the Justice Department that reviews commutation requests.”
But there is more at work here than a disconnect between a shadowy office in the Justice Department and the White House. Presidents have not grown more heartless over the years, but their political handlers have become more attuned to the punitive consensus that has driven public policy decisions since Nixon backlash of 1968. Put simply, there is little downside to turning down an application for clemency and little upside to granting one. If Barack Obama made these decisions on the basis of personal conviction he would likely release hundreds of thousands of prisoners tomorrow. But personal conviction means little to a left of center politician facing a right of center electorate. Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no” may not help adolescents hew to the straight and narrow; but these three simple words have governed the pardon and commutation game throughout my adult life.
This issue is personal for me. Friends of Justice is part of a national movement calling on President Obama to commute the sentence of Ramsey Muniz, a federal prisoner who we feel was wrongfully convicted in 1994.
The significant minority of inmates who are innocent but cannot prove it beyond a reasonable doubt are particularly vulnerable in this respect. They are far more likely than guilty inmates to roll the dice with the jury, when the dice don’t roll to their liking, they are typically sentenced to much longer sentences than a plea bargain would have delivered, and finally, when they apply for commutation they are unable to show the kind of contrition Mr. Aaron has displayed.
If you are a person of color, the chances of commutation drop close to zero.
Clarence Aaron seemed to be especially deserving of a federal commutation, an immediate release from prison granted by the president of the United States.
At 24, he was sentenced to three life terms for his role in a cocaine deal, even though it was his first criminal offense and he was not the buyer, seller or supplier of the drugs. Of all those convicted in the case, Aaron received the stiffest sentence.
For those reasons, his case for early release was championed by lawmakers and civil rights activists, and taken up by the media, from PBS to Fox News.
And, ultimately, the prosecutor’s office and the sentencing judge supported an immediate commutation for Aaron.
Yet the George W. Bush administration, in its final year in office, never knew the full extent of their views, which were compiled in a confidential Justice Department review, and Aaron’s application was denied, according to an examination of the case by ProPublica based on interviews with participants and internal records.
That Aaron joined the long line of rejected applicants illuminates the extraordinary, secretive powers wielded by the Office of the Pardon Attorney, the branch of the Justice Department that reviews commutation requests. Records show that Ronald Rodgers, the current pardon attorney, left out critical information in recommending that the White House deny Aaron’s application. In a confidential note to a White House lawyer, Rodgers failed to accurately convey the views of the prosecutor and judge and did not disclose that they had advocated for Aaron’s immediate commutation.
Kenneth Lee, the lawyer who shepherded Aaron’s case on behalf of the White House, was aghast when ProPublica provided him with original statements from the judge and prosecutor to compare with Rodgers’s summary. Had he read the statements at the time, Lee said, he would have urged Bush to commute Aaron’s sentence.
The work of the pardon office has come under heightened scrutiny since December, when ProPublica and The Washington Post published stories showing that, from 2001 to 2008, white applicants were nearly four times as likely to receive presidential pardons as minorities. The pardon office, which recommends applicants to the White House, is reviewing a new application from Aaron. Without a commutation, he will die in prison.
Through the Justice Department, Rodgers declined repeated requests for an interview, and the department itself declined to comment on any aspect of the Aaron case, citing “privacy and privilege concerns.”
“Every clemency request — whether it be for commutation of sentence or for pardon — is considered carefully and thoroughly by the Office of the Pardon Attorney,” spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said.
“We cannot improve or strengthen the exercise of this power without taking it out of the Department of Justice,” Craig said.
He advocated for a bipartisan review panel that would report directly to the president.
The number of pardons awarded has declined sharply in the past 30 years, as have commutations. Obama has rejected nearly 3,800 commutation requests from prisoners. He has approved one. Bush commuted the sentences of 11 people, turning down nearly 7,500 applicants.
A former pardon office lawyer said some applicants have been turned down “en masse” with little, if any, review, a claim the Justice Department disputes.
Aaron, now 43 and in his 19th year behind bars, had not known how close to success his request had come, or what had barred his way, until he was contacted by ProPublica. Still, he said, it gave him hope.
“I didn’t know I had that type of support” from the judge and prosecutor, he said in a phone interview from the Alabama correctional facility where is held. “When you do the right things each day, there really are people out there watching, and for those who still haven’t given me their support, I will keep working for them, too.”
Aaron stumbled into the “war on drugs” near its peak, in 1992. Then a linebacker at Southern University in Baton Rouge, he introduced a classmate whose brother was a drug supplier to a cocaine dealer he knew from high school in Mobile, Ala.
Aaron was present for the sale of nine kilograms of cocaine and the conversion of one kilogram to crack, according to court records. He was paid $1,500 by the dealer.
After federal authorities busted the ring and the case went to trial, Aaron claimed his role was so limited that he knew almost nothing about the deal. But he refused to testify against friends, and others fingered Aaron as a major player and testified against him in exchange for reduced sentences.
Though it was Aaron’s first criminal offense, he received the stiffest sentence of anyone involved in the conspiracy. Only Aaron and the drug supplier, who is scheduled to be released in 2014, remain behind bars.
Aaron’s case gained national attention in 1999 when he appeared in “Snitch,” a PBS “Frontline” documentary about prisoners serving long sentences after refusing to turn informant. The film helped him garner support in Congress and from civil rights organizations.
In January 2001, Aaron submitted an application for a commutation. He faced a high hurdle.
Between 1980 and 2010, requests for commutations rose sharply, reflecting lengthier sentences and the elimination of paroles for federal inmates, while the number of successful applicants plummeted.
Under Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, both two-term presidents, one applicant in 100 was successful. Under Bush, approvals fell to barely better than one in 1,000.
Aaron’s high profile boosted his chances, as did his track record as a model inmate. He wrote in an amended petition that he was deeply ashamed of his actions and felt “terrible remorse. I also regret that I further compounded my mistake by not admitting to my participation at trial.”
In 2004, then-Pardon Attorney Roger Adams recommended the White House deny Aaron’s request. Adams said in a recent interview that he wrote the recommendation with some ambivalence.
“Anyone who looks at Clarence Aaron will see a really, really tough case of a young guy in prison for the rest of his life,” Adams said.
His report went to the White House, where it sat for three years among a growing stack of recommendations.
A cursory review
In 2008, Rodgers, a former military judge and federal prosecutor, took over the pardon office and changed the way it handled commutation applications.
Under Rodgers’s predecessors, staff lawyers reviewed each case, gathered pre-sentence and Bureau of Prisons progress reports and wrote recommendations based on their research.
“Some reports were shorter, just a paragraph or two,” said Margaret Love, who served as a pardon attorney from 1990 to 1997. “But there was always enough of a report that you could get an idea of what the basic facts and issues were.”
For the first 21 / 2 years under Rodgers, however, most petitions were handled by paralegals, not staff attorneys, and recommended for denial in batches, said Samuel Morison, a lawyer who spent more than a decade in the pardons office before leaving in 2010 to work for the Defense Department. He said Rodgers instituted the change when there was a significant backlog.
“The office types up a list of names, along with basic sentencing and offense information for each prisoner, and sends the list to the White House with a note that says the attached cases are meritless and should be denied,” Morison said.
At the end of 2010, Rodgers reverted to the old system. He now assigns a lawyer, along with paralegals, to review commutation requests, the Justice Department said.
Still, in the past four years, applications from more than 7,000 prisoners have been denied — 22 times as many as were rejected during Reagan’s eight-year presidency.
The Justice Department insists the accelerated process did not mean applicants got short shrift.
Rodgers “personally reviewed every application for commutation of sentence before recommending their disposition,” a Justice Department official said.
A nine-year odyssey
The White House sent Aaron’s application back to the pardon office for reconsideration in early 2008 as part of a larger push to find clemency candidates.
According to former White House counsel Fred Fielding, his staff had become frustrated by the lack of positive recommendations from the pardon office. In Bush’s final year in office, lawyers began searching through denial recommendations for promising cases and found Aaron.
This time, key elements shifted in Aaron’s favor. Unlike her predecessor, Deborah J. Rhodes, the new U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, supported the petition.
“I have reviewed various documents submitted by Clarence Aaron in support of his petition for commutation of sentence and agree that Aaron should receive a commutation of his life sentence,” her November 2008 memo to Rodgers began.
Rhodes suggested Aaron’s triple life sentence be commuted to the equivalent of a 25-year sentence, with credit for good behavior. Under this calculation, Aaron would be released in 2014.
U.S. District Court Judge Charles Butler Jr., who had sentenced Aaron, changed his earlier stance of no position, opting this time to support commutation.
“Looking through the prism of hindsight, and considering the many factors argued by the defendant that were not present at the time of his initial sentencing, one can argue that a less harsh sentence might have been more equitable,” he wrote in response to a motion filed by Aaron’s attorneys.
In a phone interview with the pardons office on Dec. 2, 2008, Butler told Morison, the lawyer in the office, that Aaron “should be granted relief” by the president immediately.
Morison sent an e-mail to Rodgers sharing his transcribed notes from the call with Butler. Morison asked Rodgers if he should update the draft recommendation on file for Aaron’s release in light of the views expressed by Rhodes and the judge. Rodgers responded minutes later: “Thanks Sam. I’ll take it from here.”
Instead, Rodgers offered no new recommendation to the White House and did not revise the old one. He did not pass on years of favorable prisoner reports describing Aaron’s successful rehabilitation. He also made no mention of an affidavit Aaron filed with the pardons office in 2007 in which he expressed further remorse and asked “for a second chance to be a productive citizen.”
Rodgers resubmitted the 2004 denial recommendation, unchanged, to the White House.
In an e-mail the next day to Kenneth Lee, associate White House counsel, Rodgers did not disclose that Rhodes and the sentencing judge now agreed that Aaron should receive an immediate commutation. He told Lee that Rhodes suggested Aaron’s sentence should be commuted to a term of 25 years “at some point.” Rodgers also said that Rhodes believed “Aaron’s commutation request is about 10 years premature.”
No such language is in Rhodes’s memo.
All Rodgers told the White House about Butler’s views was that the judge had “no objection to commuting the sentence presently.”
Rhodes would not comment on Rodgers’s handling of the petition except to reiterate that she had recommended an immediate commutation for Aaron.
“I reviewed the case myself and thought it was a good one,” she said.
Butler declined to comment for this story.
The Justice Department would not answer questions about the way Rodgers characterized the views of Rhodes and Butler, or how Rodgers had arrived at his recommendation on Aaron.
Lee, the former associate White House counsel, said Rodgers had presented the views of Rhodes and Butler “in the least favorable light to the applicant.”
Referencing ProPublica’s findings on presidential pardons — that whites were nearly four times as likely to be pardoned as minorities — he also expressed concern that the office’s approach to the case could have been affected by race. Aaron is African American.
“Had we known before about a potential subconscious bias in the office,” Lee said, “we would have liked to look at the actual letters in the Aaron case rather than rely on the pardon attorney’s summary.”
In response to the ProPublica findings, the Justice Department said it took the concerns seriously and was reviewing the statistical analysis in the article.
Aaron remains in a federal penitentiary in Talladega, Ala.
He spent the first dozen years of his sentence at maximum security prisons in Florida and Georgia, where he completed a two-year religious-studies correspondence course through Emory University. He also took courses in microeconomics, Spanish, photography and behavioral development
In 2007, he was transferred to the medium-security facility in Talladega, where he helped bring a new textiles factory online and works as a clerk, assisting the factory accountant.
“A lot of people think I’m crazy, to do self-help programs and stay out of trouble with a sentence like mine,” Aaron said. But “from the first day I walked into the federal prison system, I just continued to better myself and educate myself.”
He’s acutely aware of all the milestones he has missed — family birthdays, his college graduation. In 2005, his younger sister Stephaine died suddenly during radiation treatment for skin cancer. Aaron said he calls her daughters every week.
Bush formally denied Aaron’s request on Dec. 23, 2008. Aaron learned of the decision three weeks later when Rodgers sent formal notification to his attorney.
In April 2010, Aaron submitted a new petition for commutation. It is pending.
“If I was to be granted that commutation,” Aaron said, “the president who backed me wouldn’t regret it, because I would work hard every day to prove my worthiness.”
ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.
The government targeted Ramsey Muñiz on the uncorroborated word of a major narcotic importer. Then, by withholding this information, they made it impossible for the sharpest defense attorney in Texas to challenge their case until it was too late.
By Alan Bean,
Friends of Justice
“People want me to express remorse,” Ramsey Muñiz once told me. “How do you express remorse for something you didn’t do?”
In the eyes of the law, Ramiro “Ramsey” Muñiz is a convicted drug dealer who refuses to take responsibility for his actions.
In a federal trial in 1994, a Texas jury found Muñiz guilty of participating in a narcotics conspiracy. Because he had two prior convictions, federal law dictated a life sentence without possibility of parole.
A growing community of supporters is asking President Barack Obama to commute Ramsey’s sentence on humanitarian grounds. Ramsey Muñiz is approaching his seventieth birthday and, after a serious fall, he can no longer walk without the assistance of a cane. What good is accomplished, they ask, by keeping such a man in federal custody?
Others believe Muñiz was targeted as part of a political vendetta. Twice in the early 1970s, Ramsey was a gubernatorial candidate on the La Raza Unida ticket. Following a college football career with the Baylor Bears, Muñiz graduated from the university’s law school. Handsome, charismatic and tireless, Ramsey’s political campaigns galvanized the Latino community, especially in the Rio Grande Valley. According to some of his stalwart supporters, Ramsey’s Anglo opponents used the war on drugs to humiliate a Latino icon.
So, who is Ramsey Muñiz?
Is he the civil rights leader who shook up Texas politics? This is how Ramsey is remembered by his old friends from the halcyon days of La Raza Unida.
Is he the well-connected legal professional with a passion for defending young marijuana defendants? This is how his colleagues in the legal community remember him.
Is he a mystic-in-chains whose suffering has drawn him into deep communion with the crucified Christ? This is the Ramsey who greets a steady stream of visitors at the Beaumont Medium prison.
Or is Muñiz just an unprincipled opportunist who used his professional standing as a front for get-rich-quick drug deals? This is how Muñiz was portrayed in a federal courtroom in 1994, and it is how he is still regarded in the eyes of the law.
When a man is driving a car with 40 kilos of powdered cocaine in the trunk he certainly looks guilty. But who put the drugs in the car, and did Ramsey know the drugs were there?
This wasn’t the first time the hero of the Chicano movement was associated with the drug business. In 1976, Ramsey was accused of participating in a conspiracy to import marijuana into the United States. A young co-defendant negotiated a dramatic sentence reduction by agreeing to name every person who had been present when the importation of marijuana was discussed. Ramsey Muñiz was one of the names.
Like most Latinos in South Texas, Muñiz regarded marijuana as the moral equivalent of beer or wine; a common feature of social life that posed no moral problems when used in moderation. But when the Nixon administration associated the prolific plant with hippies, Mexicans and radical war protesters, the war on drugs was born.
Many former supporters were dismayed when Muñiz entered a guilty plea. He was a lawyer, not a drug dealer, so why was he going down without a fight?
Muñiz was uniquely vulnerable to federal narcotics conspiracy charges. Many of the leading marijuana importers in the Rio Grande Valley came from socially prominent families who had supported La Raza Unida in the early 1970s and regarded Ramsey Muñiz as a celebrity figure. According to federal law, a defendant can participate in a conspiracy without knowing all of his co-conspirators and with only scant information about the nature of the conspiracy. You don’t even have to profit personally. If you know illegal transactions are taking place and you fail to blow the whistle, you are part of the conspiracy.
Muñiz freely admits that he was privy to conversations related to marijuana importation. He thought he was protected from prosecution by attorney-client privilege. He was wrong.
Humiliated by his dramatic fall from grace, Muñiz wanted to disappear as quickly, quietly and completely as possible. Two virtually identical cases had been filed on the basis of the same conspiracy allegations, one in San Antonio, the other in Corpus Christi. After taking a plea offer to avoid the humiliation of trial, Ramsey was sentenced to two consecutive five-year terms and shipped off to McNeil Island, a prison on the Washington State coast commonly reserved for gang members.
After serving half his term, Ramsey Muñiz returned to the free world and, having forfeited his law license, began a new career as a paralegal. His specialty was helping Anglo attorneys communicate with Latino clients. To his great surprise, his time in prison had given him instant credibility with drug defendants and their families. They assumed that a man who had done time would understand the fear and confusion they were feeling.
They were right. Ramsey knew too much about the routine horror of prison life to be blasé about the consequences of a narcotics conviction. Wherever he went, Muñiz was surrounded by the relatives of drug defendants desperate for effective legal assistance. If his clients had money, Ramsey hooked them up with a good attorney. But he frequently went to bat for indigent defendants as well, even when the cases he sponsored were sure to lose money for the law firms he represented. Attorneys shook their heads in bewilderment, but often yielded to Ramsey’s zealous advocacy.
Muñiz was in Dallas visiting with the families of marijuana defendants when he was arrested in March of 1994. When he went to trial a few months later, the attorneys he once worked for painted a composite portrait of a morally driven crusader; a man determined to weave some justice out of his own suffering.
In the eighteen years since he was arrested in the parking lot of a La Quinta motel in Dallas, Ramsey’s spiritual education has continued. His first teacher was Diego Duran, a sixteenth-century Spanish missionary whose writings preserved much of what we know of traditional Mexican religion. Connecting with the religious roots of the Mexico’s indigenous people strengthened his commitment to the Roman Catholic piety of his childhood.
In 2009, Ramsey experienced the first of many vivid night visitations from significant people from his past. These visions lack the disconnected and logically bizarre quality of normal dream. The conversation is natural, Ramsey says, “just like you were sitting across from me and we were talking. I can reach out and touch my visitors, and they can touch me. In every respect, it is just like real life. Most nights I have normal dreams or no dreams at all; but in the hours before a visitation, I can feel the Spirit growing inside me, and I know that tonight will be one of those nights.”
The most frequent night visitor is Ramsey’s father-in-law, Dr. Salvador Alvarez. “We were very close while he was still alive,” Ramsey told me, “we were tight.”
Ramsey’s nocturnal encounters, especially with Alvarez, have been life-transforming. “Ramsey, do you love?” his father-in-law asked one night. Confused, Ramsey said, “Yes, I love. Why do you ask?”
“When you speak of love,” Alvarez replied, “it is always for your own people, la raza. Nuestra gente. Have you no love for the rest of the world?”
“I realized he was right,” Ramsey says. “It isn’t enough to love your own people, it is also necessary to love people who are not like you. That’s why I now sign all my letters, ‘Freedom, justice, and love for all the world.”
Muñiz would be an excellent candidate for a presidential commutation if he would express remorse for his crimes and many wonder why he is so adamant on this point when, at first glance, the government’s case against him seems airtight.
Consider the facts the government presented to the jury in the summer of 1994:
On the evening of March 10th, 1994, agents with Drug Enforcement Administration in Dallas saw Muñiz pick up an unidentified man at the Love Field airport in Dallas, Texas.
The following morning, Muñiz had breakfast with an associate named Juan Gonzales and the unidentified man he met at the airport. In the course of conversation, the unidentified man referenced a deal scheduled for ten o’clock.
After breakfast, Muñiz and Gonzales dropped off the unidentified man at Love Field and returned to the Ramada Inn.
Muñiz got behind the wheel of a white Mercury Topaz and followed Gonzales to a La Quinta motel one mile south on Interstate 35.
When agents from the Dallas office of the Drug Enforcement Administration questioned Muñiz moments after he exited the Topaz, he concealed the keys and denied any association with the car.
The trunk was opened, revealing 40 kilograms of powder cocaine with a street value of $800,000.
That’s all the government wanted the jury to know about Ramsey Muñiz. It was then up to Dick DeGuerin, Ramsey’s high profile defense attorney, to muddy the waters as much as he could. A string of attorneys who had employed Ramsey as a legal assistant talked about his passion for helping indigent defendants. Testimony showed that Ramsey was in Dallas in March of 1994 because several families were desperate for his assistance.
As civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander recently told Stephen Colbert, “During the 1990s, the period of the greatest escalation in the drug war, nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests were for marijuana possession, saddling these young people with criminal records for life that will authorize legal discrimination against them in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits.”
Ramsey Muñiz was in Dallas, testimony suggested, trying to minimize the impact of the government’s war on marijuana.
The jury also learned a little bit about the mystery man Muñiz picked up at the Dallas airport on Thursday night and deposited at the same airport Friday morning. Donacio Medina was a Mexican businessman who came to Texas seeking legal representation for two brothers, one in Texas, the other in California, who were awaiting trial on federal drug charges.
Testimony suggested that Donacio Medina was introduced to Ramsey Muñiz by Moises Andrade, a businessman who owned camera shops on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border. When Medina mentioned his brothers’ legal troubles, Andrade directed him to Ramsey Muñiz.
Medina wanted his brothers sentenced to as little time as possible and then, after they were sentenced, he was hoping to have them transferred to prisons in Mexico—a little-known feature of the recently adopted NAFTA agreement made this kind of prisoner swap possible. Well-connected and fully bilingual, Muñiz was the ideal person to help Medina negotiate with a high-profile Texas attorney.
Finally, defense counsel used motel phone logs to prove that virtually every call Ramsey made while in Dallas was either to his wife or a long list of prospective clients. The implication was that Muñiz came to North Texas on a legitimate business trip; doing a drug deal with a virtual stranger wasn’t on the agenda.
The jury also learned that Muñiz drove from Houston to Dallas in a red Toyota Camry driven by Juan Gonzales, a laborer from the Rio Grande Valley who frequently served as Ramsey’s chauffeur. Muñiz explained that he got more work done when he paid someone else to do the driving. Due to a medical emergency, Gonzales made a hurried dash to his home in South Texas and, for most of his time in the Dallas area, Muñiz was picked up and dropped off by potential clients.
Finally, the jury was told that the white Topaz Muñiz was driving just prior to his arrest had been rented in Houston by Donacio Medina using Juan Gonzales’ Sears credit card. Gonzales told Medina that he couldn’t use his card because his account for $300 in arrears, so Medina paid off the balance with cash so Gonzales could rent the car. This happened short days before Muñiz and Gonzales drove to Dallas.
Dick DeGuerin did some sleuthing while the trial was underway and the results were stunning. Prior to trial, the prosecution had portrayed the Muñiz prosecution as an in-house job. DEA agents in Dallas got a call from suspicious employees of the Ramada Inn, put Muñiz and Gonzales under surveillance, and the rest is history.
But when DeGuerin ran the official scenario past motel personnel he sparked a chorus of denials. No one associated with the Ramada Inn thought their courteous and professionally-dressed guests were the least bit suspicious, and no one had called the DEA office in Dallas. The government’s story was a complete fabrication.
There was more. Phone records showed that on March 9th, Donacio Medina called Ramsey Muñiz from the Classic Inn, a low-end motel in Fort Worth. This meant that Medina had travelled to Fort Worth prior to March 9, 1994, returned to Houston on March 9th, and flew back to Dallas the following day. This meant that Medina was in Houston on parts of March 9th, 10th and 11th (the day Muñiz was arrested).
The weird revelations kept coming. On the last day of trial, DeGuerin got a DEA agent to admit that Danny Hernandez, a criminal informant working with the DEA, had booked into Fort Worth’s Classic Inn on March 6th and maintained a room at the motel during all of Medina’s shuttle diplomacy between Houston and Dallas. The DEA agent insisted that Hernandez was working a completely different case. The agent insisted that Hernandez had no association with Medina and that no records suggested that Medina had ever stayed at the Classic Inn.
But if that was true, why did Medina call Muñiz from the Classic Inn on March 9th, and why, as trial testimony suggests, did Medina pay Danny Gallardo, an off duty FedEx driver, to transport him to the Classic Inn shortly after arriving at Love Field the following day?
Furthermore, why did the mysterious Danny Hernandez book into the Fort Worth motel claiming that he had no identification because his wallet had been stolen? If that was true, where did Hernandez get the money for the room, and why did he give the motel a fake address? Did Medina and Hernandez drive to Fort Worth in the white Topaz Medina rented with Juan Gonzales’ Sears card so that Medina could enjoy a base of operations without leaving a paper trail?
The final revelation arrived just as Dick DeGuerin was putting the finishing touches on his closing argument. Newly revealed government records showed that Donacio Medina had been “negotiating” with the DEA office in Houston. DeGuerin referenced this fact during his close, but with no time to think through all the implications, he didn’t know what to do with the information. It is likely that the prosecution revealed this information to the defense as soon as they learned about it. If so, both the prosecution and the defense went to trial knowing next to nothing about the man at the heart of the story.
What does this shocking piece of information imply?
First, it meant that the Muñiz operation originated in Houston and that DEA agents in Dallas joined the investigation late and only at the request of the Houston office.
Secondly, it means that, shortly after arriving in Houston from Mexico, Medina was arrested and “debriefed” by the DEA. What probable cause did the Houston DEA have for picking up Donacio Medina?
We can only speculate. Shortly after being convicted, Muñiz learned through the prison grapevine that an undercover DEA agent overheard Medina bragging about the size of his cocaine operation at a Houston party. Obviously, this theory can’t be documented.
It is also possible that Medina was picked up because two of his brothers were sitting in federal prisons awaiting trial on charges involving enormous amounts of powdered cocaine. One brother was found with almost $5 million in his possession. Two brothers facing narcotics charges suggested that Donacio had a stake in the family business.
Here’s what can be said for certain: Medina agreed to help the feds build a narcotics case against Ramsey Muñiz in exchange for free passage back to Mexico. Trial testimony shows that Medina was held at Love Field by DEA agents until 40 kilos of powdered cocaine were discovered in the trunk of the white Topaz. The moment the drugs were discovered, Medina was released.
Was the federal government targeting Ramsey Muñiz? This question cannot be answered with certainty. Ramsey’s name may have come up when the DEA asked Medina what he was doing in the country. If Medina claimed to be in Houston looking for legal representation for his brothers, Ramsey’s name would have dropped and a quick check would have revealed his prior narcotics conviction.
This would have suggested that, his cover story notwithstanding, Medina had entered the country to do a narcotics deal with an underworld figure named Ramsey Muñiz. It is possible that the DEA officials who targeted Muñiz knew nothing of his political history.
Confronted with the government’s suspicions, Medina faced a simple choice: deny that he and Muniz had a drug deal in the mix and join his brothers in a federal prison awaiting trial, or give the feds Muñiz in exchange for a one-way ticket to Mexico City.
It is possible, of course, that the Houston DEA got it right. The fact that Muñiz drove a narcotics-laden car down a one-mile stretch of I-35 is entirely consistent with the government’s theory. The prosecution had no burden to show who placed the drugs in the Topaz or who the prospective buyers might have been. Prior to trial, the government wasn’t even required to inform defense counsel of their relationship to Donacio Medina or any other criminal informant. In fact, the prosecution likely went to trial knowing very little (and caring even less) about Medina’s association to the Houston DEA.
With the striking exception of a single country, testimony from criminal informants is viewed with grave suspicion in the free world, and for obvious reasons. Alexandra Natapoff is America’s foremost authority on the use and abuse of “snitch” testimony.
“Criminal informants are an important piece of the wrongful conviction puzzle,” she says, “because informants have such predictable and powerful inducements to lie, because law enforcement relies heavily on their information, and because the system is not well designed to check that information.”
There are two enormous problems with the government’s case against Ramsey Muñiz (and virtually every other federal case built on snitch testimony). First, the government targeted Muñiz on the uncorroborated word of a man they believed to be a major narcotic importer. Second, by withholding this information, the government made it impossible for the sharpest defense attorney in Texas to challenge the government’s theory of the crime.
Did Ramsey Muñiz know he was transporting narcotics? That’s the only question that matters. The government shaped the evidence to make it appear that he did, while making it impossible for defense counsel to argue that he didn’t. In a nutshell, that’s what’s wrong with this case.
The government argued that Muñiz got behind the wheel of the white Topaz because it was his prearranged role in a narcotics conspiracy. That’s a nice simple story and, deprived of an alternative explanation, the jury was sure to buy it. But there are plenty of alternative explanations.
Consider this scenario. Confronted with DEA suspicions, Medina “confesses” that he came to Texas to do a drug deal with Ramsey Muñiz. Knowing that Juan Gonzales would soon be driving Muniz to Dallas, Medina rents a car for two days in Gonzales’ name and Gonzales goes along with the plan because it restores his credit and places $250 of free money in his pocket.
Next, the DEA gives Medina and Danny Hernandez 40 kilos of cocaine, the two men place the drugs in the trunk of the rented Mercury Topaz and drive to the Classic Inn in Fort Worth. Hernandez, rents a room without identification so there will be no record of Medina’s stay.
Medina flies back to Houston, at the request of the DEA (while Hernandez guards the stash), then Medina arranges to have Ramsey Muñiz pick him up at Love Field on the evening of March 10th so the Dallas DEA can witness the two men together.
The next step can be reconstructed from trial testimony. Medina approaches Danny Gallardo, an off-duty Fed Ex driver, and asks him to drive to the Classic Inn in Fort Worth on the evening of March 10th so Medina could pick up his car. After arriving at the motel, Medina tells Gallardo that the car isn’t there and asks to be driven to the Ramada Inn in Lewisville. Seeing Muñiz in the Ramada parking lot, Medina exits the car and Gallardo drives off.
Medina then gets into a car driven by an unidentified man and disappears until the following morning.
Trial testimony suggests that, on the morning of March 11th, Ramsey Muñiz, Donacio Medina and Juan Gonzales (recently returned from a whirlwind trip to the Rio Grande Valley) meet for breakfast at the Evans restaurant across the street from the motel. At some point, Medina slips Gonzales the keys to the rented white Topaz and asks him to return the vehicle for him.
The three men drive to Love Field shortly before 11:00 am the morning of March 11th, Medina gets out of the car and disappears inside the terminal. According to trial testimony, Gonzales stops en route to the Ramada Inn to call a relative from a pay phone. Only then does Gonzales inform Muñiz that he plans to spend the night at the La Quinta that evening, and asks his boss to help him move Medina’s rented car from the Ramada to the La Quinta. Although Ramsey doesn’t have a driver’s license, he agrees to make the one-mile trip as a favor to Gonzales.
Trial testimony suggests that Gonzales, learning that Muñiz intended to fly back to Houston after a noon meeting with prospective clients, decided to remain in the DFW area to look for work. The details remain sketchy, however, because Gonzales didn’t discuss his plans with Muñiz prior to arrest and because Gonzales didn’t testify at trial.
Was Ramsey Muñiz innocently moving a car for a friend, or was he engaged in an illegal narcotics deal? The answer depends on whether you believe Denacio Medina or Ramsey Muñiz.
This recreation of the story involves considerable speculation, but so does the government’s theory of the crime. Both reconstructions may be wildly off base. The real story may be buried somewhere in an obscure DEA file folder, but given the slim corpus of facts at our disposal, partisans on either side of the story are reduced to playing a guessing game.
Several questions may never be answered. Did Medina supply the drugs in the trunk of the Topaz or did the 40 kilos of cocaine come from a DEA evidence locker? Both theories are possible.
The more you know about this case the more troubling it becomes. Let’s begin with Donacio Medina. If DEA suspicions are justified (and I suspect they are) we are dealing with a man with an established narcotics distribution network trained and equipped to do his dirty business for him. Why would such a man travel to Texas to do a drug deal with Ramsey Muñiz when he could do this kind of transaction from the safety of his arm chair?
And if Medina came to Texas to do a narcotics transaction with Muñiz, why didn’t the deal go down in Houston or in the Rio Grande Valley where illegal narcotics are cheaper and more readily available? Why jump through all the logistical hoops a Dallas deal demanded? The most likely scenario is that Medina flew to Dallas because that’s where Muniz was doing business. But if Ramsey had a million dollar drug deal in the works, why was he spending so much time with piss ant marijuana defendants?
Here’s the simplest explanation: Medina planted the drugs in the Topaz and, working through Gonzales, placed Muñiz behind the wheel because that’s what his deal with the Houston DEA demanded.
Is an innocent and deeply spiritual man living behind bars because a Mexican drug lord was desperate to save his own skin? Of all the theories on the table, this one makes the most sense.
So why doesn’t the Department of Justice release Ramsey Muñiz because, innocent or not, he has paid his debt to society?
Two reasons. First, Ramsey’s innocence, however likely, cannot be proven. Since there is no parole in the federal legal system, the life sentence stands.
Second, the government can’t back away from the Muñiz fiasco without admitting that America’s war on drugs has thoroughly corrupted the federal justice system. Cases based on the uncorroborated testimony of drug dealers are guaranteed to convict the innocent along with the guilty. A morally flawed criminal with a gun to his head will say whatever the triggerman wants him to say.
Snitch testimony is inherently unreliable, that’s why the United States is the only nation in the free world that builds criminal cases on such a flimsy foundation. Unfortunately, America’s war on drugs cannot be waged without criminal informants.
Without the drug war, we are told, all hell would break loose. If a few thousand innocent Americans get locked up in the process, that’s just the price we have to pay. The Roman orator Cicero summed it up nicely a century before Jesus was crucified, “In time of war, the law falls silent.”
It is appropriate that Ramsey Muñiz identifies so closely with the suffering of Christ Crucified. Like his Savior, Ramsey has been sacrificed for the greater good. “You do not understand,” Caiaphas told the religious leaders of his day, “that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”
This perverse but powerful logic keeps men like Ramsey Muñiz in bondage. If he would only admit guilt and feign contrition, Muñiz might have been released long ago. But like he says, “How do you express remorse for something you didn’t do?” If you are willing to abandon your last shred of self-respect, it’s easy. But men like Ramsey Muñiz can’t walk through that door.
There is only one way to resolve this dilemma. Barack Obama could issue a presidential commutation on humanitarian grounds. But the president can’t make this bold move unless we move first. Abraham Lincoln got it right, “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.”
What Franklin Roosevelt told a group of depression era reformers, Barack Obama says to us, “I agree with you, I want to do it . . . now make me do it.”
Barack Obama, a moderate Democrat, should heed the example of conservative Republican Hailey Barbour. In this Washington Post op-ed, Barbour explains why he pardoned 215 people during his last days as Mississippi Governor. Barbour believes people can change, that even murders can be rehabilitated.
Contrast that with Mitt Romney’s tough-on-crime criticism of Rick Santorum’s willingness to give ex-felons the vote. Contrast that with Barack Obama’s play-it-safe refusal to put his pardon pen to meaningful use.
There is a Nixon-goes-to-China aspect to all of this, or course. Conservatives like Barbour won’t be mistaken for bleeding heart liberals when they make compassionate gestures. Given Haley’s record of racial insensitivity, his good-ol’-boy reputation will survive a little criticism from self-serving Mississippi Democrats. If Barack Obama followed suit he could be portrayed as soft on crime, especially if his compassionate intervention benefited a disproportionate number of African-American felons (which, given the skewed demographics of our American Gulag, it almost certainly would).
Or is Obama simply afraid of his own shadow? (more…)
Haley Barbour has put his foot in it again; this time for pardoning more than 200 Mississippi inmates as one of his final acts as governor. Please understand that most of these people had served their sentences; Barbour issued full pardons so they could vote, buy fishing licenses and live a normal life in the free world. As Michelle Alexander argues with chilling clarity in her book The New Jim Crow, ex-cons don’t return to the free world when they leave prison, they are condemned to restricted and truncated lives in which the pursuit of an education or a decent job is largely a waste of time. In short, they have been excommunicated from the American dream. Governor Barbour felt that a few former inmates, selected with capricious randomness, deserve better.
It should also be noted that this is not the first time Haley Barbour has shown his compassionate side. Until 2008, the Mississippi Governor refused to pardon anyone for any reason, then, as Radley Balko discovered when he checked the records two years ago, Barbour suddenly went soft. The five men pardoned on Barbour’s way out the door are remarkably similar to the kind of people Barbour has pardoned in recent years. Here’s Balko’s list from late 2009:
Bobby Hays Clark, who in 1996 shot his ex-girlfriend in the neck and beat her boyfriend with a broom handle. Clark, who had a previous aggravated assault conviction, was sentenced to 38 years. Barbour pardoned him last year without notifying the family of Clark’s victim.
Michael David Graham, who in 1989 shot his ex-wife point-blank with a shotgun while she waited at a traffic light. Barbour suspended Graham’s life sentence, and he was released.
Clarence Jones, who stabbed his ex-girlfriend 22 times in 1992. She had previously filed multiple assault and trespassing charges against him. He was sentenced to life in prison. Barbour pardoned him last year.
Paul Joseph Warnock, who in 1989 shot his girlfriend in the back of the head as she slept. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1993. Barbour pardoned him last year.
William James Kimble, convicted and sentenced to life for robbing and murdering an elderly man in 1991. (more…)