When Trump freed Johnson in 2018, the three hoped their own appeals for clemency would one day also be granted. That day came Tuesday, when Trump cut short their sentences, in part based on Johnson’s recommendations.
In interviews Wednesday, the women said they had not spoken with Johnson in years and were only vaguely aware of her efforts.
“I knew I would always be in her heart, but I never knew she would advocate so hard for me,” Hall said. “She’s my secret angel.”
The relief granted to the three women is the latest example of the unorthodox ways that Trump chooses to exercise his clemency powers, having sidelined the traditional pardon bureaucracy administered by the Justice Department.
The women stand in contrast to the well-connected public figures who were also granted clemency Tuesday: convicted “junk-bond king” Michael Milken, former Illinois governor Rod R. Blagojevich, former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik and billionaire Edward DeBartolo Jr.
The men had members of Congress, wealthy campaign donors and celebrities vouching for them.
The women had their former prison mate — who was freed after her case was championed by reality-television star Kim Kardashian West.
“Every time I think about it, my eyes fill and the tears just flow,” Johnson said in a telephone interview Wednesday, speaking of the release of her friends.
Amy Povah, founder of a pro-clemency group called CAN-DO, said she and other advocates for criminal justice reform submitted a list of about a dozen meritorious female offenders directly to the White House late last year.
“When it boiled down to only three, it’s not surprising that the White House put value on the ones Alice served time with and knew their character,” said Povah, who was incarcerated for nine years for drug crimes before receiving a commutation in 2000. “You know who those diamonds are in there who are so deserving, and you know who the people are that are still engaging in shenanigans.”
For decades, offenders have filed petitions seeking clemency with the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the Justice Department. That office vets the requests and sends recommendations to the deputy attorney general, who forwards final recommendations to the White House.
Clemency advocates have long argued that the Justice Department, traditionally led by tough-on-crime former prosecutors, opposes too many offenders who are deserving of leniency.
“I’m not trying to be the pardon office or to say people have to go through me, but I am trying to offer a little help,” said Johnson, a 64-year-old great-grandmother who served about 22 years of a life sentence for cocaine trafficking.
Despite Johnson’s role as an informal adviser to the president and her appearance in a Super Bowl ad for the Trump campaign, federal prosecutors in the Western District of Tennessee have opposed her request to cut short her five years of supervised release.
“Motivated now by continued greed for money, fame and celebrity, the defendant seeks to throw off the pesky burden of supervised release,” U.S. Attorney Michael Dunavant, a Trump appointee, said in a court filing in July. “Uninformed members of the public continue to celebrate her criminality.”
Johnson said it was “absolutely crazy” to cast her as a risk to public safety. She now lives with her daughter in Arizona, giving speeches about criminal justice reform and promoting a memoir.
Johnson’s application to end supervised release is now pending.
Johnson was held at several different prisons, including Federal Medical Center Carswell in Texas, where she met Munoz, and Federal Correctional Institution Aliceville in Alabama, where she befriended Hall and Negron.
Munoz, who spent 12 years in prison for her role in a marijuana smuggling ring, described Johnson as a surrogate mother. Munoz was separated from her two baby daughters when she was imprisoned.
“Alice was a light in a dark place,” said Munoz, 40. “To know that she had a life sentence and to see the strength and motivation that she gave to everyone around her, it helped me have hope.”
The White House cited Munoz’s mentoring of other inmates, volunteer work with a hospice program and “extraordinary commitment to rehabilitation.”
Hall said she and Johnson commiserated during President Barack Obama’s second term when they were not among a record-setting number of about 1,700 commutations.
“She kind of talked me through it and gave me moral support,” said Hall, 36, who served about 14 years of an 18-year sentence for drug crimes.
Hall completed apprenticeships, took college classes and taught prison educational programs, the White House said.
Negron, who had completed eight years of a 35-year sentence for health-care fraud, said she had never “praise-danced” before she met Johnson in prison.
“She made this beautiful choreography, and I wanted to be part of that,” Negron, 48, said by phone from her home in Miami. “It kind of helped us do our time.”
Negron was convicted of aiding a $200 million fraud that was one of the largest mental-health billing scams in the country.
“Every day, I am trying to compensate and repair the damage,” she said. “I am grateful I have been given an opportunity, and I will continue to pay my dues to society.”
Johnson’s role in the clemency process dates to October, more than a year after her release, when Trump invited her to a criminal justice speech in South Carolina. In the middle of his remarks, he called on Johnson to help him find other inmates worthy of clemency.
“You know some great people that are going to be there for many, many years, Alice. Right?” Trump asked. “And you’re going to give me some names, all right?”
Johnson told The Washington Post that she heard an alarm go off. “That was the moment I’d been waiting for,” she said. “That’s all it took, and then I hit the ground running.”