At about 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Crystal Munoz heard news that made her body shake.
The 40-year-old Navajo mom of two young girls couldn’t speak and struggled to gather herself. Her days of being an inmate at FMC Carswell Satellite Camp in Ft. Worth, Texas, were officially behind her. Munoz was free. Thanks to the White House, she was going home early to her family after spending a dozen years in prison after being convicted of marijuana charges.
President Donald Trump granted Munoz and three others clemency. Trump also pardoned seven others as part of a Feb. 18 White House announcement. Munoz “has spent the past 12 years in prison as a result of a conviction for having played a small role in a marijuana smuggling ring,” the statement read. “During this time, she mentored people working to better their lives, volunteered with a hospice program and demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to rehabilitation.”
“I didn’t imagine how I would feel, I was in shock,” Munoz said in a phone interview less than 24 hours after walking out a free woman. “I couldn’t speak, I started shaking. My mind is so overwhelmed right now, I can’t think.”
“I’m looking forward to helping and being there for my family,” she added. Munoz was on her way to her Texas home with her husband Ricky Munoz and two young daughters, Sarai and Nova.
Munoz thanked the Trump administration and many others who advocated for her freedom on her behalf, including faculty and students at Texas A&M Criminal Defense Clinic. Alice Marie Johnson was another advocate. Trump granted Johnson clemency in June 2018. Johnson met Munoz in prison and considered her “one of my prison daughters,” according to the Associated Press. They were in the same housing unit and attended church together.
“We did a lot of crying and a lot of praying together for things to change for us,” Johnson said.
Johnson said that after she was released she could not stop thinking about how to help Munoz, and other women in prison.
The chance came in October when, Johnson said, Trump asked her for a list of others deserving clemency during a criminal justice conference at historically black Benedict College in South Carolina. Reality TV star Kim Kardashian West urged Trump to grant Johnson clemency.
Amy Ralston Povah was another key advocate for Munoz’s release. She’s the founder and president of the non-profit Clemency for All Non-Violent Drug Offenders Foundation. Shortly after learning of Trump’s announcement, Povah posted on her website, www.candoclemency.com, the news that Munoz and two other women - Judith Negron and Tynice Hall - she was advocating for received clemency. She said Munoz is “one of the most deserving women I have advocated for.”
Povah is a clemency recipient herself under the Clinton Administration. Povah’s website highlights 25 women and men who she says also deserve clemency. One of the women listed is a 54-year-old Lakota woman sentenced 30 years on charges related to methamphetamine.
“We are hopeful that there is going to be more to come, we submitted more than just those three,” Povah said.
Munoz filed a clemency petition in 2013 and was denied in 2016 under the Obama Administration. Her story brought some national attention after Vice Media and Rolling Stone profiles. Rolling Stone published its article in September 2017 with the headline, “Pot Prisoners: Meet Five Victims of the War on Drugs.”
Munoz “was sentenced to almost two decades for drawing a map of a road in Big Bend National Park (along the Texas/Mexico border) on a piece of notebook paper - a favor, she says, for some friends,” Rolling Stone wrote. “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 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.”
Munoz’s release comes roughly 18 months before her potential release.
Munoz was pregnant and had a four-month-old daughter when she was indicted in 2007. She gave birth while in federal custody. Sarai and Nova are both 12 now and are 10 months apart.
Munoz grew up in Sanders, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation. She moved to Texas and married Ricky Munoz in 1997. Ricky did what he could to help free Munoz, he said. He waited, raising his two daughters. He started a Change.com petition three years ago asking for Crystal to receive clemency and 101,000 had signed it as of Feb. 19.
Shortly before Crystal Munoz got the news of her release, about 320 miles west of Ft. Worth near the New Mexico border in Andrews, Texas, where Ricky and his daughters live, Ricky’s phone rang. On the other end was President Trump delivering the news of Crystal’s release.
Ricky wasn’t sure if he should jump in his vehicle and pick up his daughters at school and head to pick up Munoz because it wasn’t clear initially on when Crystal would be released. She walked out of prison around 6 p.m. that night and was picked up by a friend. Ricky and the daughters met up with Crystal that night.
“Everything since that call has been surreal, I’m still trying to take it in,” Ricky Munoz said.
Other ties to Indian Country among Trump’s announcement, include former General Services Administration Chief of Staff David Safavian, who was among the seven pardoned by Trump. He was convicted in 2009 for making false statements and for obstruction of justice. Safavian lied about his relationship with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Abramoff served prison time as part of a plea agreement that he conspired to defraud four Native American tribes that operated or were interested in operation casinos in Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Michigan, according to a 2008 Department of Justice news release.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.