FreedomWorks recently announced the launch of the American Freedom Initiative (AFI), a collaboration headed by former acting U.S. Attorney General Matt Whitaker. This project aims to help relieve injustices committed against Americans under the criminal justice system and the regulatory state. As part of this project, we will shine a spotlight on some of the individuals the AFI has identified under its National Pardon Project as being particularly hard hit by unjustly harsh criminal sentences for non-violent crimes.
Michael Montalvo’s case is a prime example of the importance of both retroactivity and redemption. Given the mandatory minimum sentence of life in federal prison for being involved in a non-violent criminal enterprise in 1987, Montalvo’s conviction would warrant a 20-25 year sentence under current law. Unfortunately, the laws that were passed to correct these excessive sentences have not been made retroactive, meaning the courts can offer him no relief. Without a change in law, currently only President Trump can correct this injustice by commuting Montalvo’s sentence and allowing him to meet his grandchildren before he dies in federal custody.
Born in California, Montalvo and his mother moved to Arlington, Virginia following the death of his father. He was only 5 years old. His mother supported him through her career in the State Department and sent him to Georgetown Prep, one of the best private college-preparatory schools in the nation. Between 1966 and 1972, Montalvo served his country honorably in Vietnam, after which he attended college on the GI Bill. He then got involved in a small business and, by his own account, lived a normal life until the early 1980’s.
At that time, recreational drug use became quite popular and lucrative in California, where Montalvo lived after college. In 1983, Montalvo became involved in what prosecutors described as a “criminal enterprise” to sell marijuana and cocaine. In August of 1986, after realizing the error of his ways, Montalvo “gave up [his] involvement with drugs, focused on [his] family, began a new advertising business, and [he] was going in a positive direction.” That was until a former friend traded Montalvo’s life for his own. Arrested leaving his mother’s 72nd birthday party, the only evidence against Montalvo was the testimony of an alleged co-conspirator who had traded his story for leniency from prosecutors.
Rather than accept a plea bargain, Montalvo exercised his constitutional right to a trial, where he was convicted. In sentencing, Montalvo suffered two severe setbacks that resulted in a life sentence. First, he received a required sentence for a drug charge in which no drugs were ever physically recovered. Rather, they relied on “ghost drugs;” the testimony of an informant estimating an amount of narcotics.
More importantly, Montalvo became a victim of a common yet arguably unconstitutional phenomenon known as the “trial penalty,” whereby prosecutors seek excessive punishment as retribution for a defendant having the gall to assert their right to a trial. As in-depth analysis has shown, there is a significant difference between the sentences received for plea agreements made before trial and for convictions post-trial. In effect, prosecutors and judges punish individuals for exercising their 6th Amendment rights.
The other members of the criminal enterprise who were just as culpable received 10, 15, and 18 year sentences. Each of them have been living as free members of society for decades. Montalvo, on the other hand, will never be free because he wanted to be tried by a jury of his peers rather than be shoved in a cell based on a backroom deal with prosecutors. To make matters worse, purely as a result of his life sentence, Montalvo was designated a high security inmate in a maximum security federal prison. All this is in spite of his lack of violent history and perfect conduct record while incarcerated.
Having filed several motions on his own behalf, no one is a better advocate for Michael Montalvo than himself:
I deeply regret the pain I have caused my family and loved ones. I have tried to better myself and learn as much as possible while in prison so I can help my fellow prisoners prepare themselves to be responsible and contributing members of society when they return to the free world. I can only hope and pray that I may also be given the chance to contribute my painfully acquired knowledge and experience to society outside those bars. Redemption is a word that defines those of us who desperately want a second chance in life to redeem our errors. I reconnected with my faith while in prison, and for 32.5 years, I have tried to show Our Lord, my family and society through my daily conduct that I sought redemption, that I had learned from my past mistakes and that I am capable of contributing something of value to society. I continue to teach and to assist prisoners in staying positive, changing their attitudes, avoiding violence and improving their lives even within the confines of prison. I now pray that I will be allowed to make a contribution in the outside world as well. My family has been waiting for me for a long, long time, but my only chance of returning to them and meeting the grandchildren I have never seen, is if President Trump is touched by compassion and grants me Clemency.
True justice requires the possibility of redemption. Having been denied clemency by President Obama, Montalvo’s fate now rests in the hands of President Trump. Throughout his time in prison, he has been a model inmate, constantly striving to better himself and the people around him. Leaving Michael Montalvo, a redeemed man, to die in federal prison serves no reasonable purpose.