He was serving a life sentence for cannabis. Then he got a phone call from Ivanka Trump
Craig Cesal is living proof of how ludicrous the nation’s war on drugs became at its low point.
Before becoming entangled in America’s war on drugs, his only prior conviction was a $150 fine for walking into a Bennigan’s with a beer.
Cesal, who is from the Chicago area, was in the prime of his life, running a truck-repair business, when he was arrested by federal agents in 2002. One of Cesal’s clients was a long-haul trucking company whose drivers, it turned out, were moving shipments of marijuana around the American South. U.S. border agents at a checkpoint in Texas discovered 1,500 pounds of marijuana wedged into a hidden compartment in one of those trucks. DEA agents trailed the vehicle to Georgia, where the cannabis was delivered.
Cesal was the unlucky guy who was picking that truck up to repair it.
As he later put it: “I never bought, sold, used, aided and abetted, nor participated in any marijuana activity; I only provided repair support for truck drivers who did so.”
From the day of his arrest Cesal has lived a dystopian nightmare. He was given a life sentence in federal prison. He served nearly 19 years before released into home confinement last June, over concerns about his health during the COVID pandemic.
Cesal was nearly released by President Obama in 2016 before enduring a Kafkaesque twist of the bureaucratic knife. His sentence commutation never came through.
Finally, at age 61, he was notified late at night on Jan. 19 that President Trump had commuted the rest of his sentence.
This conversation with Leafly took place during his first partial day of freedom. It has been edited for clarity and brevity.
‘Roller coaster’ week
Leafly: What kind of emotions have been running through you these past 24 hours?
Craig Cesal: Believe it or not, the real emotional roller coaster started on Monday. I got a call from Sarah [Gersten], from the Last Prisoner Project, asking, “What is the best phone number for the White House to call you?” Imagine, I was pretty excited that maybe all these efforts were paying off. So as you can imagine, my phone wasn’t more than arm’s length away from me. [Laughs]
But. I went through Monday, I went through Tuesday and all the way till, 11 o’clock last night, I’m thinking, you know, What happened? Maybe the White House changed their mind and they’re not going to do commutations. Because there it was, getting late, and there had been no announcement, and no announcement of when there would be an announcement. Everything was just silent.
A phone call from Ivanka
Leafly: Those last few hours must have felt like an eternity.
CC: They did. I mean, I had a lot of people contacting me, but other than that distraction, I literally was pacing. Because like I say, especially when it started getting to 9, 10, 11 o’clock, I’m thinking, you know, you know, something that happened, I guess the clemencies just may not come through.
So I was really getting worried when, 11 o’clock [Tuesday] night, I got a call from a Ivanka Trump. She introduced herself and her very words, that I’m sure I’ll never forget, were, “The president has commuted your sentence.”
Leafly: You heard from Ivanka herself?
CC: Yes, she said it was her, and I have every reason to believe it was her. And she was very nice, with a little small talk and congratulating me and urging me on to a nice life.
Cesal was released to home confinement last summer due to the COVID pandemic. He was finally pardoned this week.
‘My phone has been on fire’
Leafly: What happened next?
CC: I texted out to a whole lot of people that were hanging on their fingernails as much as I was—wondering are these commutations really going to come through? So I started communicating to all these people, telling them that Ivanka had called me.
At midnight my time here in Chicago, I started receiving information that the White House had published the list of people that received clemency. And of course my phone has been on fire ever since. I graduated high school in 1977, and I don’t know how they found me, but I was getting all kinds of calls from people I went to high school with.
Leafly: This was a long time coming, right?
CC: Much of it has been a roller coaster, in that in the past so many things were all lining up and it looked like I’m going to get some relief. [But it didn’t happen.]
Prisoners “learn to stay away from expectations and not believe anything until we see it.”
Like for instance, my clemency petition in 2016 under President Obama. It had made it through the steering committee. I had a ton of support. There were over 400,000 signatures on the online petition. I mean, everything was coming my way. But then at the last moment I got blocked by something that a prosecutor did. There were times when I had appeals in and everything was lined up where it couldn’t fail, and yet it did.
So that was the exact emotion I was feeling Tuesday night. When advocates over the last few weeks—who have been working so hard for this, for me—they would ask me, “Why is it that you and other prisoners seemed more relaxed than we advocates are, when we’re not doing the time?”
And I explained to them that prisoners, after a while, you avoid having expectations. You don’t even expect to have a nice dinner for Christmas because otherwise you you’re probably in for a letdown. So we learned to stay away from expectations and not believe anything until we see it.
A prosecutor with a cruel streak
Leafly: You mentioned 2016. What did the prosecutor do back then to sabotage your case?
CC: The clemency petition process is designed to be the avenue of last resort for a prisoner. So when I made it through all those gatekeeper requirements for clemency, a prosecutor in my case went in the court and said that I had agreed to my sentence being lowered from life to 30 years, and got the judge to grant it. That was on August 22, 2016. And because the court gave me some relief, that voided my clemency petition, because it was proof that there was another avenue of relief.
So they dismissed my clemency petition, and on September 7, 2016—not even three weeks later—the prosecutor went back into the court and asked them to put my life sentence back up.
Leafly: That’s awful.
CC: I’m still arguing that that’s prosecutorial misconduct, but the courts move so slowly, it’s still ongoing.
Standing outside a legal weed store in Chicago
Leafly: How much have you been following the legalization of cannabis?
CC: As much as I could from the prison. Since I appeared a book called A Living Death: Life Without the Possibility of Parole, that came out 2012, I’ve had the backing of some just fantastic cannabis advocacy groups. And from all these groups, I’ve gotten a whole lot of updates on what’s going on in cannabis.
It’s created, you know, an emotional problem in me, watching all these states legalize cannabis.
One experience I’d like to share with you is, when I got released last June to serve some of my time on home confinement during COVID, I had to go see a Bureau of Prisons doctor in Chicago. I’m walking down Western Avenue, and I just stopped right in front of a cannabis store. I stood there with the GPS on my ankle, knowing that at any time I could go back to federal prison to serve out the rest of my sentence. And I’m watching all these people walk in the store and walk out carrying bags and all that. There was just an emotion that you couldn’t otherwise imagine.
CC: It was, because you don’t know how bad I wanted to reach out to these people or walk into the store and ask, “Why? Is cannabis really legal? Then how do you explain me?”
Leafly: Have you been out of your house since the commutation came through?
CC: No. [Laughs.] The only thing I’m going out for today, actually when we’re done, I’m going to go to the Bureau of Prisons. They’re waiting for me to come in to cut the GPS device off my ankle.
Leafly: And after that?
CC: I have to start off serving a sentence of five years of supervised release. So I have to contact those people and start getting all that together. But of course I’m going to visit some friends, and I’m going to visit some stores. I haven’t found out how clothing styles have changed since 2002. [Laughs]