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Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

A yearslong effort to free a Lakota woman from prison was finally coming to an end in the coming weeks, but that changed for the better with a swipe of the pen by President Donald J. Trump.

Lavonne Roach, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, was among those granted clemency by Trump before he left office Wednesday.

Roach, 56, had served 23 years of a 30-year non-violent drug-related sentence, according to the White House. She was granted compassionate release a few days ago and was expected to be released at the end of the month when Trump stepped in.

“She has had an exemplary prison record and has tutored and mentored other prisoners,” read a brief explanation given by the White House. “Ms. Roach has a strong family support system to help her transition back into the community.”

Lavonne Roach and her granddaughter Kylee in 2000. Roach was granted clemency by President Donald Trump on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Clarissa Brown)

The last-minute clemency action follows separate waves of pardons over the past month for Trump associates convicted in the FBI’s Russia investigation as well as for the father of his son-in-law.

Roach was listed among 73 pardons and 70 commuted sentences that were issued by Trump. Among the pardons include Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon and rappers Lil Wayne and Kodak Black.

Trump did not pardon himself, despite speculation that he would, in the face of potential federal investigations. He had previously asserted that he had the authority to do so. He also did not pardon his children or his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

The final list was full of more conventional candidates whose cases had been championed by criminal justice activists.

In February 2020, Trump granted clemency for Crystal Munoz, Navajo, who had been convicted of marijuana charges and spent 12 years in prison.

(Related: Navajo woman receives clemency from President Donald Trump)

Many across Indian Country asked for Leonard Peltier’s clemency during Trump’s administration but no clemency was granted. Peltier was found guilty of first-degree murders of FBI Agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, according to the FBI. The agents were murdered on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota on June 26, 1975.

Roach was expected to be released from a West Virginia prison on Wednesday, her daughter Clarissa Brown told Indian Country Today.

“I was just waiting for this day for so long,” Brown said. “It just all feels very surreal, but we're all happy and excited and thankful.”

Roach was sentenced in 1997 on a conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, according to the nonprofit Clemency for All-Non-Violent Drug Offenders Foundation, or CAN-DO. Her clemency case was filed in 2014 under the Obama administration. Roach was originally scheduled to be released on January 28, 2024, according to the foundation.

Roach was among 10 clemency candidates listed by the nonprofit in a news release thanking the president. A petition with 35,153 signatures asking Trump to grant Roach clemency proclaimed “victory.”

Roach went to prison as a mother of three and came home a grandmother of 11 and great grandmother of a 1-year-old, Brown said. Brown hadn’t seen her mom in person since 2010 because of financial hardships and because Roach was placed in different locations.

Roach’s mother worked hard over the years to free her daughter. She wrote letters to members asking for her daughter’s release before passing away in 2017, Brown said.

Brown and Roach wrote and filed for a compassionate release because of Roach’s health issues. Initially, it was denied, Brown said, but she filed a rebuttal and it was approved. Brown praised CAN-DO’s President Amy Povah and criminal justice reform advocate Alice Marie Johnson for their advocacy on Roach’s behalf.

If Roach didn’t receive clemency, she would have been released on Jan. 29 and required to enter a reentry treatment program while being probation for five years, Brown said. Instead, Brown’s sibling planned to pick up Roach on Wednesday.

“This was just like the cherry whipped cream on top of a big huge sundae,” Brown said. “I don’t know how else to put it. It’s overwhelming, but in a very good way.”

The family of Lavonne Roach. Roach was granted clemency by President Donald Trump on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Clarissa Brown)
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter: @daltonwalker Walker is based in Phoenix and enjoys Arizona winters.

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