Deneise Quintanilla was a nonviolent drug offender when she received a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine. She served over 17 years before receiving clemency from President Obama on May 17, 2017.
In August of 2000 there was a knock at my door.
It was law enforcement asking for my husband. I was so naive that I assumed it was about child support that he owed. They began talking to him and then turned to me and asked if I was Deneise Quintanilla. When I answered yes she said, “Ma’am can you put your hands behind your back? We have an indictment for you out of Indiana.”
I said, ”Indiana? I don’t know anyone in Indiana.”
“Well Indiana knows you and we have a warrant for you and your husband.”
That was the start of a long ordeal. My husband and I were extradited from Texas to Indiana where I spent almost a year in county jail. I was scared to death and facing charges of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine.
The court appointed lawyer I was given was a bankruptcy lawyer and every time I spoke to him I just cried because he didn’t know how to help me. He came to me one day and explained that the prosecution was offering me a plea deal of 20 years in prison with no relief, meaning I’d have to serve the full 20 years, in exchange for testimony against others. Then he told me that him helping me would be like finding a needle in a haystack and that I should just take the plea deal for 20 years.
I was sitting on my jail bunk doing my bible study and I just started crying. I wondered if this was part of God’s plan for me, to sign my life away for 20 years.
I never dreamed that I would receive a life sentence.
I went to trial which lasted eight days. No drugs were found in the case so others in the conspiracy agreed to cooperate and testified against me. The fiancé of one of the co-defendants, who had made at least 6-7 trips to Indiana with money and drugs, took a plea bargain and testified that one time she came to our house and saw me helping my husband wrapping dope.
That never happened but because she said it, she never served a day in prison and I got a life sentence. My husband was also sentenced to life.
My mom would say, “Can’t you do that Deneise? Can’t you just say something about somebody?” But at the end of the day, I was guilty of knowing what my husband was doing and and what kind of person would I be if I made things up about others just to avoid my responsibility? That’s still someone’s son, daughter, father, or mother.
Yes I’m guilty of knowing that my husband was dealing drugs, of using the money to support my family and buy nice things, and I’m guilty of loving my husband. But life in prison without the possibility to ever leave? That didn’t make sense. My judge stated that he didn’t think I would be that courtroom if it weren’t for my husband because there wasn’t any real evidence against me.
I will never forget the day I told my children that I had received a life sentence in federal prison and that this meant I’d never leave. To see my children breakdown and cry is beyond any pain a person can imagine. This was the hardest thing to endure in my entire life.
Prison was a shock.
I was sent to the FMC Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas. This at least allowed me to be closer to my children but of course, having both your parents in prison is a burden on kids.
At Carswell we had family days where you could spend a whole day with your children. I remember how strong my daughter was the first year but when she came for the second one she just broke down and told me, “I don’t understand why you can’t be home.” That was the first time I had seen that much emotion since I had to tell her about the life sentence.
What was a real shock to me is that once you’re in prison, they really don’t care about you. There’s no real attempt to help you better yourself or make sure you’re safe. It’s all about punishment.
When I first started my sentence I was asked if i was suicidal. I said no. Do you think they ever asked again? No. There’s no care or concern for the women in prison. If you cry too much, maybe because your parent or child died, then they want to “help you” but putting you in the ward or solitary. We’re allowed to have three bras and three panties every six months. The food quality over the years has become incredibly poor. It’s awful what people in prison are forced to eat.
My grandfather and father both passed away while I was incarcerated. Even years afterward, there were still days that when I’d call home, I expected one of them to still answer the phone, but in reality I will never hear their voices again. It all began to feel like a nightmare that I would never wake up from.
I started working in hospice with elderly and dying prisoners.
It was hard to watch women who were in prison for so long become sick and die. I knew that this could be me one day and if that happened I didn’t want to be all alone. I’d want somebody to be with me. So I’d read them the letters from their children or parents and be there to help them find comfort and some feeling of love in those last days or minutes of their lives. I’d dial the phone so they can say goodbye to family because they were so weak they couldn’t dial themselves. These women became my family.
I’d have to make sure that other inmates wouldn’t take advantage of them. You wouldn’t believe it but some inmates would steal dying people’s stuff. Take their morphine patches or steal out of their cells. I felt like God was calling me to protect them.
In 2014 I was contacted by Amy Povah from CAN-DO Clemency Foundation and she was so helpful. No one had ever reached out to me and my family and offered support like she did. Amy and Jodi Loretta helped me tell my story exactly how I always wanted to but could never find the words. They made my case visible to Codey Spear, a law student at Valparaiso University, who under supervision of attorney Rebecca Brown, filed my petition for clemency.
President Obama granted me clemency January 17, 2017
It was 7:30AM and I was on my way to work when my case manager called and told my boss that I needed to come to the office that afternoon. I was on pins and needles all day because every attempt I had made at relief was denied over the years and once again my life was in the stroke of a pen.
When I finally went into the office, I was handed a phone and it was Rebecca Brown. My heart was going 90 miles per hour. Right away she said, “Deneise, I’m calling to tell you that you’ve been granted clemency.”
I just broke down crying. All I could do was thank God. I kept crying and crying and telling myself I was going home. I was finally going home. I told Rebecca that words couldn’t even begin to express how grateful I was to her and Cody. She told me it was their honor and I just kept on crying. By the this time all of the prison staff were crying too.
What hurt is that just a week before my friend Diana Marquez, who had been in prison with me for nearly 10 years was told that she had been denied clemency. She had clear conduct and met all of the clemency criteria so I didn’t understand that. We were coworkers and roommates and very close so it was devastating for both of us. I thought if anyone would get clemency it would be her.
My husband also received clemency that day. But but he only had his sentence reduced to 30 years so it will likely be another decade until he is released. We are still married.
I walked out of prison on May 17, 2017
After 17 years, I’m trying to live my life get up on my feet. I saved up enough money to buy a cheap car but it had lots of problems and it to was expensive to maintain. So I went to a Toyota dealership so afraid that I would be denied because I have no credit whatsoever after being in prison for so long but I couldn’t believe how caring the people at the dealership were. They asked why I didn’t have any credit and I explained I had been incarcerated for the last 17 years and they helped me get a 2014 Toyota Camry. It’s got a backup camera and bluetooth and I will have paid it off in four years.
I’m working at ISW Menswear. When I interviewed, the first thing they asked was if I was a convicted felon. I said, “Yes I am. All I can say is that it happened 17 years ago and I’ve been locked up for that entire time. President Obama signed my clemency petition Stanford Law has backed me and is willing to talk to you about my character and case if you have any questions.”
He said, “Ms. Quintanilla, I’m not worried about what you did 17 years ago, I’m worried about what you’re going to do from this day forward. Are you going to work hard show up on time I don’t care about what happened yesterday, I care about tomorrow.”
I feel blessed.
To know that I’m with my children today, I feel very blessed. There’s still a lot of healing that needs to be done though because I’ve missed so many years of their lives and you can’t make up for that. Once it’s been done to them, they’re scared and trust needs to be rebuilt. They had to do this time with me. We all have our plans in life to be wives and mothers and watch our children grow up, not spend life in prison.
I feel like I’ve made history by being part of this clemency initiative. To have the first African-American president, the first one to give all these people a second chance, give me back my freedom too? It’s amazing.
I want President Obama to know that I won’t let him down. I realize now the choices I was making all those years ago, I thought only affected me. Really, they affected my whole family and society. I just want to do my best to prove to my family, society, and President Obama that they won’t regret giving me back my freedom. I will never take this chance for granted and I hope my story with will help others still in prison and prevent others from making the same mistakes I have.