He was serving a life sentence for hashish. Then he obtained a name from Ivanka Trump
Craig Cesal is living proof of how ridiculous the nation’s war on drugs became at its low point.
Before he got involved in America’s war on drugs, his only previous conviction was a $ 150 fine for going to a Bennigan’s with a beer.
Craig Cesal, owner of a truck repair company, was serving a life sentence on charges of marijuana trafficking in the early 2000s. (Courtesy photo of Last Prisoner Project)
A native of the Chicago area, Cesal 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-distance haulage company whose drivers turned out to be moving marijuana shipments in the American South. US border guards discovered 1,500 pounds of marijuana at a checkpoint in Texas stuck in a hidden compartment in one of these trucks. DEA agents towed the vehicle to Georgia, where the cannabis was delivered.
Cesal was the unlucky guy who picked up the truck to fix it.
As he later said, “I have never bought, sold, used, endorsed, promoted, or participated in marijuana activities. I have only assisted repair truck drivers who have done this. “
Cesal has had a dystopian nightmare since the day he was arrested. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in federal prison. He served nearly 19 years before being released into custody last June on account of health concerns during the COVID pandemic.
Cesal was nearly released by President Obama in 2016 before taking a Kafkaesque twist on the bureaucratic knife. His sentence conversion never got through.
Finally, at the age of 61, he was informed late that night on January 19 that President Trump had commuted the remainder of his sentence.
This conversation with Leafly took place on his first part of Freedom Day. It has been edited for clarity and brevity.
“Roller coaster” week
Leafly: What kind of emotions have penetrated you in the past 24 hours?
Craig Cesal: Believe it or not, the real emotional roller coaster ride started on Monday. I got a call from Sarah [Gersten]from the Last Prisoner Project and asked, “What is the best number for the White House to call you?” Imagine if I was pretty excited that all of these efforts might have paid off. As you can imagine, my phone was no more than an arm away from me. [Laughs]
But. I went through Monday, I went through Tuesday and all the way until 11am last night, I think you know what happened? Maybe the White House changed its mind and they won’t commutate. Because it was getting late and there had been no announcement and no announcement as to when there would be an announcement. Everything was just quiet.
A call from Ivanka
Leafly: Those last few hours must have felt like forever.
CC: You did. I mean, I’ve had a lot of people contacting me, but aside from that distraction, I was literally pacing up and down. Because like I said before, especially when it got 9, 10, 11 o’clock, I think, you know, you know, something that happened, I think the clemencies just don’t come through.
So I was really worried when, 11am [Tuesday] One night I got a call from an Ivanka Trump. She introduced herself and her words, which I will certainly never forget, were: “The President has changed your judgment.”
Leafly: Have you heard from Ivanka herself?
CC: Yes, she said it was and I have every reason to believe it was her. And she was very nice, having a little chat and congratulating me and pushing me to a good life.
Cesal was released to prison last summer because of the COVID pandemic. He was finally pardoned this week.
“My phone was on fire”
Leafly: What happened next?
CC: I wrote to a number of people who were just like me hanging on their fingernails. I wonder if these commutations will really get through. So I started communicating with all of these people and told them that Ivanka had called me.
At midnight while I was here in Chicago, I received information that the White House had published the list of people who had received grace. And of course my phone has been on fire ever since. I graduated from high school in 1977 and don’t know how they found me, but I got all sorts of calls from people I went to high school with.
Leafly: That took a long time, didn’t it?
CC: A lot of it was a roller coaster ride as so many things have been lined up in the past and it looked like I was getting some relief. [But it didn’t happen.]
Prisoners “learn to stay away from expectations and not believe anything until we see it.”
Like, for example, my pardon in 2016 under President Obama. It had made it through the steering committee. I had a lot of support. The online petition contained over 400,000 signatures. I mean, everything was coming towards me. But at the last moment I was blocked by something a prosecutor was doing. There were times when I appealed and everything was lined up where it couldn’t fail, and yet it did.
That was exactly the emotion I felt on Tuesday night. When lawyers – who have worked so hard for me for this – have asked me in the past few weeks, “Why do you and other prisoners seem more relaxed than we lawyers when we don’t have the time? “
And I explained to them that after a while, prisoners no longer have expectations. You don’t even expect a nice Christmas dinner or you will likely be disappointed. So we learned to stay away from expectations and not believe anything until we see it.
A prosecutor with a cruel lead
Leafly: You mentioned 2016. What did the prosecutor do back then to sabotage your case?
CC: The pardon process is supposed to be the last resort for a prisoner. When I was through all of these pardon requests for the gatekeeper, a prosecutor went to court on my case and said I had agreed to have my sentence reduced to 30 years and let the judge grant it. That was on August 22nd, 2016. And because the court gave me relief, my pardon was voided because it was evidence that there was another avenue of relief.
So they rejected my pardon, and on September 7, 2016 – less than three weeks later – the prosecutor went back to the court and asked them to reinstate my life sentence.
Leafly: That’s terrible.
CC: I still argue that this is prosecutorial wrongdoing, but the courts are moving so slowly that it is still going on.
Standing outside a legal weed shop in Chicago
Leafly: How much have you followed the legalization of cannabis?
CC: As much as I could from prison. Ever since I published a book called A Living Death: Life Without Parole, which came out in 2012, I’ve had the support of some simply fantastic cannabis advocacy groups. And from all of these groups, I’ve gotten a ton of updates on what’s going on in cannabis.
It’s an emotional problem inside of me seeing all of these states legalize cannabis.
One experience I want to share with you is that when I was released last June to spend some of my time in custody during COVID, I had to see a doctor from the Bureau of Prisons in Chicago. I’m walking down Western Avenue and just stopped in front of a cannabis store. I stood there with the GPS on my ankle and knew I could return to federal prison at any time to serve the rest of my sentence. And I watch all of these people go to the store and carry bags and so on. There was just one emotion that you couldn’t otherwise imagine.
CC: It was because you didn’t know how much I wanted to reach out to these people or go to the store and ask, “Why? Is Cannabis Really Legal? How do you explain to me then “
Leafly: Have you been out of the house since commutation?
CC: No. [Laughs.] The only thing I go out for today when we’re done is 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 serving a five-year prison term under supervision. So I have to contact these people and start bringing all of this together. But of course I will visit some friends and visit some shops. I haven’t figured out how clothing styles have changed since 2002. [Laughs]
Dave Howard is a national magazine editor and award-winning author. His latest book is Chasing Phil: The Adventures of Two Undercover Agents with the World’s Most Charming Con.
Show article by Dave Howard