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Presidential commutation frees man with central Ohio ties after decades behind bars

John Knock was convicted of several marijuana conspiracy charges and sentenced to two life terms.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Communicating via Zoom has become the norm these days.

But, for John Knock, Friday was his first time ever seeing the technology, let alone using it.

“This is all new,” he said from his home in Pennsylvania.

Even the grocery store is overwhelming for Knock. After all, he’s spent the past two decades behind bars.

“There’s always hope,” he said of how he survived his sentence. “If you don’t have hope, you know, isn’t that what all the songs are about?”

Knock grew up in a small town in Indiana before graduating and moving to California. That’s where he says he fell into the counter culture of the late ‘60s, where marijuana was widely accepted.

“It was a different time then,” Knock said. “Things were accepted differently, and it was a different way of living. I couldn’t see why the hemp product, marijuana, should be illegal. It just didn’t make sense to me at all.”

Pretty soon, Knock was selling marijuana, along with several friends. He described his way of life as ‘gypsy living’ and recounted travels to Europe, India, Mexico, Canada and Amsterdam.

When asked if it was fair to describe him as being part of an international drug-trafficking ring, he was hesitant to use that label.

“I never looked at it as that way,” he said. “It was just a bunch of guys figuring out a way of working through a system that they didn’t feel was correct. There was no centralized, controlled, manipulative, center, organized group.”

Eventually, Knock says he was ready to leave behind a life that was keeping him on the road and essentially off the grid for months at a time.

“It was either, give up the life with somebody I love, or go back on the street, and I didn’t want to go back on the street,” Knock said of his wife, Naomi. “I wanted family. I didn’t want to continue in that life. I wanted to change up, I wanted to change. And I chose family over business.”

So, Knock settled down with his wife and young son.

“There was a five-year spread there where I didn’t have anything to do, and they didn’t talk to me about it,” Knock said of his former partners. “My problem was that I kept them as friends.”

Five years after Knock said he bid farewell to his life of crime, he was indicted on charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana, conspiracy to import marijuana and conspiracy to launder monetary instruments.

At the time, he was living in Amsterdam but was arrested during a visit to France.

“I was quite surprised,” he said. “I actually thought, hey, I didn’t have anything to do with this, how can they convict me of it?”

But he was convicted. And he was sentenced to two life terms, plus 20 years, a punishment so harsh Knock calls it a travesty.

Someone else saw it that way as well – his sister, Beth Curtis, who lives in Zanesville. She was ready to fight for her brother and eventually others. She created the website lifeforpot.com, dedicated to the fight for freedom for those convicted of non-violent marijuana offenses.

For years, the family’s fight was fruitless. Court battles went nowhere, and Knock was denied clemency when President Obama left office.

But no one was willing to give up the fight or the hope.

“I’ve seen guys literally die because they had just given up, and it’s just what it is,” Knock said. “I didn’t give up, I still had family, I still had people there, and that was it. If it wasn’t for (my sister), I’d more than likely still be incarcerated until they made (marijuana) legal.”

Finally, after nearly 25 years behind bars, Knock’s hope was realized. On Jan. 19, President Trump commuted Knock’s sentence on his final full day in office. Early the next morning, Knock got the news.

“I was laying in my bunk at 5 o’clock in the morning, and two officers came by with a flashlight and shined it in my eyes and woke me up, knocked on the glass, and I went to the glass, and they said, Mr. Knock, and I said, yeah,” he described. “They said, you have a presidential commutation, and I said, thank you.”

Knock gives nearly all the credit to his sister, who also was key in the release of seven other prisoners convicted of similar crimes.

“Clemency is a gift of life,” Curtis said in a statement to 10TV. “I will be eternally grateful to Douglas Berman from Moritz College of Law for all the support and information he provides through his blog Sentencing Law and Policy. Dennis Cauchon, director of Harm Reduction Ohio, also gave great support over the years. David Clifford Holland of Holland Litigation has always been there for nonviolent marijuana offenders with life and other egregious sentences and helped break out the category a decade ago.”

Her work has been recognized on a national level, and the fight to free Knock has been featured in several news outlets.

“I deeply admire Beth Curtis’ dedication,” said Mark Osler, a professor and Robert and Marion Short Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of St. Thomas. “There are few examples of love for a family member that rise quite to the level of working for years and years and years and years for freedom, and all the disappointments along the way. It was a great day for them.”

Osler has been involved in Knock’s case for the past decade or so and calls him one of the fortunate ones.

He says there are thousands of other cases like his where sentences are far too harsh and clemency is in order.

“I was a federal prosecutor myself, in Detroit, from 1995 until 2000,” he said. “I’m someone who once sought those mandatory sentences, and that’s how I learned how wrong they were, watching people come in and go away for so long, and knowing that it wasn’t going to make anything better. It was going to make things worse. And it did.”

Now Osler advocates for clemency and sentences he sees as more in line with the crimes committed.

“Clemency is meant to smooth off the roughest edges of our criminal justice system, that it is one of the few things that is common both to the faith of many people in the United States – mercy – and is in the Constitution so explicitly,” he said. “It has to mean something, and that something includes sentences like what John Knock received.”

As for what Knock has in store now, that’s still yet to be determined.

“I got to hug my wife,” he said “What else is there?”