“They took 17 years of my life,” said Tony DeJohn, a former nonviolent cannabis lifer who was recently granted clemency as part of the Trump administration’s final list of commutations before leaving office.
Prior to his arrest, DeJohn was living in his native Syracuse, New York, with his wife, Jill. He was always close to his mother, Betty, and had a similar relationship with his mother-in-law, Wilda.
Working in construction, he had prior run-ins with the law—a psilocybin charge in 1998 and one for cannabis that led to him being locked up for a few years. While his record wasn’t spotless, DeJohn did not have a history of violence or any other wrongdoings besides the two busts.
Allegations state that Tony DeJohn was part of a 13-plus person distribution operation across central New York, spanning three counties. Police allege the group distributed thousands of pounds of cannabis each year, totaling $13.5 million in revenue per year.
DeJohn’s home would be raided, with assets seized. He would face several charges, including conspiracy possession and the intent to distribute. He was also charged with possessing firearms as a convicted felon.
The charge DeJohn took the most umbrage with is the conspiracy charges. Like many opponents of such charges, DeJohn believes such charges aren’t fair, likening the charges to hearsay. “Conspiracy is basically when [authorities] can’t catch you in the act,” he stated.
DeJohn isn’t sure how he ended up a focal point of the search. What he does standby is the alleged amount trafficked. Instead of the hundreds of pounds he was cited for, DeJohn claims he made three deals totaling 20 pounds each transaction.
In 2005, he was sentenced to life plus ten years.
While he understands he broke the law, DeJohn never believed he received a fair sentence. “As far as being innocent for marijuana? I’m not,” stated DeJohn. While owning up to his guilt, he added, “Did I deserve a life sentence? Absolutely not.”
Trauma From Life In Prison For Tony DeJohn
Between 2005 and 2021, Tony DeJohn was housed in three different penitentiaries across the U.S.. Through each, he maintained a nearly spotless record, a key component in his clemency bid. The cannabis lifer often struck up a bond with others locked up for the same offense. While maintaining himself and making it out in relatively one piece, he left prison with traumatizing experiences and the pain of being ripped from his family.
For other inmates, prison may pull them from society, but they are without family long before their arrest. “A lot of guys aren’t fortunate enough to have a wonderful wife like I have, or family that stuck by my side, no matter what was going on with me behind the walls,” he stated.
A steadfast commitment in DeJohn’s mind during his imprisonment was the absurdity of the case. He said, “I never really accepted the life sentence, personally, because I knew that no way was I going to do life for a plant.” He believed the system was stacked against him, but a lack of physical evidence would one day help prove the absurdity of the case.
While holding onto that conclusion, he’d strike up a rapport with other nonviolent cannabis lifers. At USP Florence in Colorado, he’d join a group of similar inmates formed by Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht, who DeJohn would help acclimate to life in prison during their time together.
Still, Tony DeJohn and his family felt the effects of his sentence. His wife comes from wealth, with her family owning a cigarette factory on sovereign Onondaga Nation land near Syracuse, in addition to having a two-decade-long career of her own. He also told the Feds he worked 16 hour days in construction. He tried to show that the family had the money to purchase their assets without drug money, but was not successful. The guilty verdict led to asset seizures that DeJohn totals into the millions, including income, cars, and jet skis.
Financial losses paled in comparison to the pain of lost time with loved ones. He remembers numerous phone calls with Jill ending in tears. The pain is amplified by the time limitations, with calls capped at 15 minutes and an hour freeze on calling back. “You hang the phone, it’s just terrible,” he recalled.
Yet, the worst pain may be what DeJohn saw while inside. “I’d never seen anyone get killed in my life until I went to prison,” DeJohn said. He added, “I’ve seen over 11 people get murdered in the system.”
The violence was often seemingly random.”You could be walking down the sidewalk. Next thing you know, there’s someone getting stabbed next to you,” he said.
DeJohn tries not to entertain those depressing thoughts, but it’s difficult. He believes he’ll carry them with him for the rest of his life.
“I don’t know how to explain it. It’s scary, man.”
Release And Adjusting To Life Back Home
Tony DeJohn’s team first began filing appeals during the Obama-era to no success. The passage of the 2018 First Step Act brought new hope, but the bill failed to cover retroactive sentences. As such, the psilocybin charge could not be voided from his record.
The failed attempts kept DeJohn in prison but grew his sea of support. Along the way, DeJohn and his family were supported by several advocates and groups, including Cheri Sicard, Last Prisoner Project and Freedom Grow. From the beginning and until his release, he had the support of his court-appointed attorney, James Egan. “The guy went above and beyond..He still is,” said DeJohn, noting that Egan is now helping with a probation transfer from Syracuse to North Carolina for a work opportunity.
Eventually, a counselor suggested DeJohn waive his appeal rights and focus on what seemed to be a strong bid for clemency. On January 20, 2021, DeJohn didn’t believe it when he was told he had an hour to pack up.
He told officers to get away from his door and that he was tired of the games. Even when in the van, he thought the Feds might just be moving him. The realization finally came in Pueblo, Colorado. “They kicked me out of the van, and I knew it was real,” recalled DeJohn.
Today, much of Tony DeJohn’s time is spent working construction, re-acclimating with family and getting used to the world’s changes. He hopes to be working for a friend’s construction company in North Carolina soon enough.
He also hopes to get into the legal cannabis space after spending years locked away for it.
“I want to get into the industry, but I want to be legal,” he stated, showing an interest in employment and advocacy. While he wasn’t ready to mention names, DeJohn said he’s been in touch with potential opportunities.
“You’ll see. It’s definitely going to happen,” he explained. However, before making a career move, DeJohn added he’ll have to clear his probation parameters before entering the space.