The Arizona Board of Executive Clemency refused to shorten the 16-year prison sentence of Trent Bouhdida, a 29-year-old man who in 2015 sold an undercover cop an ounce of marijuana.
Bouhdida was the subject of a Phoenix New Times August 4 story that investigated how a young black man from South Phoenix ended up serving such a long potty sentence.
At a clemency hearing on Tuesday, council members were unmoved by the details of the case and decided the sentence was fair.
“When I first looked at this file, I was a little torn, because I think selling an ounce of marijuana does not, on the face of it, deserve such a long prison sentence” , said the president of the board of directors, Mina Méndez.
The council examines the cases of people sentenced to several years in prison who believe that their sentence should be commuted, as well as capital cases. If the board decides that a commutation is warranted, it makes a recommendation to the governor.
Then the governor chooses whether or not to sign the clemency. Governor Doug Ducey rarely did, even when the board unanimously recommended clemency.
Board members are appointed by the governor. Tuesday, three were present: Méndez, Louis Quiñonez and Michael Johnson. Another board member, Salvatore Freni, was absent and a fifth board seat has been vacant for several months.
Méndez is a former prosecutor, while Quiñonez is a former agent for the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Johnson is a former detective with a 21-year tenure with the Phoenix Police Department. Freni spent 30 years working for the Phoenix Police Department.
The current composition of the council – three of the four members have long careers in law enforcement – has sparked legal challenges. A statutory requirement is that no two board members come from the same profession. In April, lawyers for a death row inmate filed a lawsuit and argued that the board was mostly made up of ex-cops.
A Maricopa County Superior Court judge dismissed the case, in part because he felt law enforcement was not a profession.
In 2015, Bouhdida had a chance encounter with an undercover Tempe detective by a 7-Eleven across from his apartment. At the time, the cop was working on an undercover operation, where officers set up a fake pawn shop and attempted to recover stolen items. In the end, Bouhdida sold the officer four times of marijuana, totaling one ounce.
Bouhdida was found guilty of four counts of selling marijuana. He received a sentence of 11 years and three months for the sales, and five more years because he was on probation at the time. The probation stemmed from an armed robbery case when Bouhdida was 15 years old. He pleaded guilty, although he did not actually actively participate in any of the robberies in question, according to court records.
In Bouhdida’s clemency petition, parts of which were read aloud on Tuesday, he said his time at the Arizona State Penitentiary Complex in Tucson had been a “humiliating experience.” He also said he hoped the board would consider the small amount of marijuana involved in the sales.
But the board members were not swayed.
“Given his involvement in violent crimes with street gang affiliation, I believe his sentence was appropriate,” Quiñonez said. He also noted that although Bouhdida has taken college courses and works as a GED tutor in prison, he has a disciplinary background. This includes several cases of “disobeying a verbal/written order” and one case of minor “criminal damage” between 2018 and 2020.
Méndez agreed with Quiñonez’s assessment, noting that the board was only considering the 11-year sentence for the marijuana sales, not the five-year sentence for violating probation, which was also due to the sales. .
“My brother deserves another chance”
Bouhdida’s friends and family wrote letters and begged for mercy from board members, which Quiñonez said helped his case. “He submitted a detailed release plan and attached numerous letters of support to his request for commutation,” Quiñonez said.
Bouhdida provided some of these letters to new times during the weekend. He said he was hopeful about the hearing, but would continue to fight to reduce his sentence regardless of Tuesday’s outcome.
“The fact that there are three stores within three miles of my house where any citizen with ID can buy the same product that incarcerated Trent is ridiculous,” wrote Bouhdida’s older brother George. Bouhdida, in a letter to the council. “People and the state profit and live off the exact substance that incarcerated him.
“I just think my brother deserves another chance,” added George Bouhdida.
A childhood friend of Bouhdida, Matin Muhammad, also wrote a long letter: “Words are insufficient to express the value of Trente to his friends, family and community and what it would mean to him to be free. ”