The best-known cases of drug war injustice belong to prisoners who have articulate advocates outside of prison. Unfortunately, thousands of equally deserving prisoners lack support systems, language skills and other tools to assert their humanity to the free world.

Beth Curtis, the big-hearted founder of the web site lifeforpot.com, writes this story of Leopoldo Hernandez-Miranda, 75, who is technically serving life without parole for a marijuana offense. His real offense is being poor, powerless and Hispanic. 

By Beth Curtis

When Leopoldo Hernandez-Miranda came to the United States in 1980, he was fleeing Cuba. With his fourth grade education and limited English, he was ill equipped to handle the complicated life in his new country. As a resident immigrant with an Immigration and Naturalization Service number, Leopoldo was never able to secure employment that paid more than $6 an hour.

Nevertheless, he worked hard to have relationships, family, and to take care of himself and those he loved. 

From the time Leopoldo was a child helping his mother fix the fishing nets, he had always worked on boats. When that was not available, he worked as a day laborer. In 1993, Leopoldo was living with his wife in Miami and working as a painter for Atilano Dominquez.  For his labor, Leopoldo was paid $50 a day, plus lunch.

Dominquez had made arrangements to purchase 3,100 pounds of marijuana. Unbeknownst to him, this was a sting operation and undercover DEA agents were the pot suppliers.  Dominquez took the marijuana to a stash house to weigh. Another worker picked up Dominquez’s day laborer, Leopoldo. Compliant Leopoldo was instructed to guard the marijuana in the safe house.  Of course, as soon as Dominquez left, the agents who had supplied the marijuana came to safe house and arrested Leopoldo.

Leopoldo Hernandez-Miranda was a 54-year-old fisherman when he was arrested and indicted for a nonviolent marijuana offense.   In 1993, he was sentenced to life without parole in federal prison.

How Leopoldo was left out of a clemency request

Life for Pot became aware of Leopoldo in 2011 through a remarkable man named Eugene Fischer who was an inmate looking out for the welfare of a very ill and physically compromised Leopoldo.  It was a great act of kindness. Leopoldo also did not have the language skills to communicate about his problematic condition.

In 2012, two  generous attorneys, Michael Kennedy and David Holland, volunteered to write a Group Petition for Commutation to be submitted to President Obama and Attorney General Holder.  The criteria for inclusion was narrow. All inmates had to be nonviolent, have no violent priors, be marijuana only cases, be over the age of 62, have gone to trial, and been incarcerated for over 15 years. 

Leopoldo fit the guidelines perfectly. He was selected to be part of this petition.  It seemed to be the ideal way to highlight the futility of these wasteful and egregious sentences.

In 2012, shortly before this petition was to be submitted, Leopoldo disappeared from the BOP database.  We were under the impression that Leopoldo had a petition for Compassionate Release but had not confirmed it.  Dropping him from the Group Petition for Commutation  would mean that he would continue to be an anonymous inmate, lost in the system with no way to communicate or find an outside advocate.  His loving family was supportive but had the same language and communication problems that Leopoldo was plagued with.

The BOP does not give information to outside advocates without a FOIA which was out of the question because of time constraints. What had happened to Leopoldo was a matter of great concern.  Eugene Fischer, his unofficial caretaker, was contacted.  The inquiry was, “Is Leopoldo deceased?”  Eugene answered promptly, “It’s highly likely, when I last saw him he was less than 5’ tall, weighed about 80 lbs. and was wheeled out of the unit in a wheel chair.” 

We said a silent prayer and moved on.  There were inmates to find and spots to fill.

Of course, this was not a story I could forget. After months passed and the petition had been submitted without Leopoldo, we began to look for Leopoldo on the inmate locater site — and he had reappeared. 

Clemency for Leopoldo in 2014

Clemency Project 2014 was announced earlier this year. Life for Pot sends messages to many prisoners, including Leopoldo. We’ve encouraged many inmates to participate in the survey to participate in Clemency Project 2014.  This is the letter that was received from Leopoldo: 

“What is your intentions with this package.  I truly need to know so that I can instruct my family as to what they have to do to complete the Clemency Pakage for me. I can not do the package from prison, because I am old and sick, so  if you can offer your assistance, it will be accepted and appreciated.”

It was impossible to explain the e-mail procedure.  We printed the survey application and sent Leopoldo a hard copy, telling him that he should seek assistance in submitting it. We suggested he talk with his case manager, unit manager or other designated personnel. Unfortunately for Leopoldo, Eugene was no longer incarcerated.   Not understanding, Leopoldo completed the hard copy survey we sent and returned it to us. 

Life for Pot forwarded this hard copy of Leopoldo’s Application Survey to Clemency Project 2014, a group effort of the ACLU, ABA, NACDL, FAMM and federal public defenders. We hope it is given careful consideration and wonder how many in the BOP are like Leopoldo – unable to navigate the process, without an outside advocate to secure justice so long overdue. 

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