WASHINGTON — Ceasar Huerta Cantu did not discover the mistake until he had already spent six years behind bars. His lawyer had missed it. The judge did not notice. But studying a report he was not supposed to have, the federal inmate noticed something was wrong.
A typographical error, a single wrong digit, had consigned him to prison for an extra 3 1/2 years that he was not supposed to serve. Though once the error was discovered, the court system refused to correct it. Cantu had waited too long, a judge ruled. Only with the intervention of President Barack Obama did it finally get fixed.
In a rare use of his clemency powers, Obama commuted Cantu’s sentence on Tuesday and spared him from being locked up for an additional 42 months. “It’s hard to imagine that someone in the federal criminal justice system could serve an extra three-plus years in prison because of a typographical error,” said Kathryn Ruemmler, the White House counsel.
Cantu, who is from Katy, Texas, pleaded guilty in Virginia in 2006 to money laundering and conspiracy to possess 1,000 kilograms or more of marijuana and 5 kilograms or more of cocaine with intent to distribute. The pre-sentence report incorrectly listed his base offense level as 36 instead of 34 under federal sentencing guidelines; after adjustments for other factors, it resulted in a 17-1/2-year prison term.
His sentence was later reduced to 15 years after he provided the law enforcement authorities with what Ruemmler called substantial assistance on an unrelated criminal matter. But that was still at least 42 months longer than he would have served had the pre-sentence report recorded the proper base offense level.
Cantu only noticed the error in May 2012 when he had his family mail him a copy of that report, according to court papers.
When he found the mistake, Cantu personally wrote a motion asking that his sentence be reconsidered and sent it to court. The judge who sentenced him in 2006, Jackson L. Kiser, sitting in Danville, Va., rejected his request because of a one-year limit on such appeals.
Such rules are intended to impose a finality in criminal cases and keep courts from being clogged by never-ending and usually frivolous appeals. But that left Cantu with nowhere to turn but the president.
A Justice Department official said the case was so clearly unjust, it moved through the process at unusual speed and was sent less than a month ago to the White House, where Ruemmler recommended that Obama approve it.