Typo Adds 3 1/2 Years to Prison Sentence

If you need convincing to proofread, this may do it. Federal prisoner Ceasar Huerta Cantu discovered an error while reading a legal report about his case. Using federal guidelines for sentencing, the report noted that Cantu's offense was level 36 instead of 34. 

It took President Obama's clemency powers to fix the mistake. White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler said, "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."

Obama Commutation

Cantu's attorney and the judge who presided over his case both missed the mistake. Six years later, when Cantu brought the case forward, another judge denied the request to cut his sentence by 42 months, saying it was too late.

The case is particularly relevant now that the Obama Administration is reviewing commutation powers and because of harsh federal drug sentences. According to The New York Times, "Over his first five years in office, Mr. Obama granted fewer acts of clemency than any modern president." As Cantu's new attorney says, "If you're familiar with federal drug laws, they are very punitive, and I deal with them all the time," he said. "Any chance you get to right that, I think that's a good thing."

Related story: A clerical error kept a man out of prison for 13 years, and he was granted freedom when the mistake was finally discovered.

Discussion Starters:

  • How do you think a mistake like this could happen? How could it have been avoided?
  • Should Cantu's original attorney be held responsible for missing the error? Should the original judge?
  • Did President Obama do the right thing? What about other prisoners who seek clemency?