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Minnesota lawbreakers beg your pardon this holiday season

December 16, 2018

It was pardon day in Minnesota. Four hours of high drama and heartbreak and small mercies for people who are trying hard to be better than they used to be.

In a hearing room at the State Capitol on Thursday, a father of five took a seat before a stone-faced panel made up of Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, state Attorney General Lori Swanson and Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea.

He had half an hour to persuade three of the most powerful people in the state to pardon him for the $25,000 worth of bad checks he wrote a dozen years ago, back when he was young and drank too much.

Theres no way I could look at my children and explain what sort of man I was, he told the three members of the Minnesota Board of Pardons.

Hes married now, sober and studying to be a physician assistant. But clinics and nursing homes in his hometown of Rochester have been reluctant to open their doors to someone with a theft conviction, which means he cant complete the clinical rotations he needs to earn his degree.

Everything he hoped to do with his life was being overshadowed by the worst thing he had ever done in his life.

After a few pointed questions, the panel unanimously granted the pardon and he walked out of the room, beaming.

So it went all afternoon. The grandmother who couldnt volunteer for her granddaughters Girl Scout troop because of the drug conviction on her record. The man who desperately wanted to work for the post office, but couldnt because of the $1.09 slice of pizza he was convicted of stealing from a grocery store years before.

This is an important part of a civilized society, said Mark Osler, the Robert and Marion Short chair at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. If were willing to punish people by taking away their liberty, there has to be a role for mercy as well.

Osler, a former federal prosecutor who now works to help inmates navigate the federal pardon system, sat in on the hearing with several of his students, taking note of which arguments swayed the board and which fell flat. Petitioners who seemed unapologetic or evasive left disappointed.

This isnt the innocence project, Osler said. They need to admit what they did.

Some needed to earn the forgiveness of the people they hurt before they could beg the states pardon.

A man who drove his car over his wife during a drunken argument appeared before the board with his wife by his side, backing up his plea for a pardon. A woman who stabbed her boyfriend faced the board shoulder-to-shoulder with her victim, who is now her husband.

Asking some of the most powerful elected officials in the state for a pardon isnt easy. The answer is no more often than its yes.

But this time maybe because the governors recent health problems pushed the hearing into the holiday season, maybe because these were the final pardons he and the outgoing attorney general would ever get to grant the majority of people who hoped for a clean slate on Thursday got one. Eighteen requests, 12 pardons.

Breathe. Thats what they keep telling me, Dayton joked gently with one nervous woman. The governor just spent a month in the hospital recovering from post-surgical damage to his lungs. The woman approached the board in tears, asking forgiveness for the welfare fraud she committed when she was 19 years old.

Youve been through a lot of hard stuff, the governor, who knows a thing or two about addiction and recovery, told her.

Going before the pardon board means going back to the ugliest, most embarrassing chapters of your life and talking about them, into a microphone, in a room full of strangers and TV cameras.

The young woman talked about her years of homelessness and unemployment, and about her cancer diagnosis. She talked about the college degree she just earned and her missionary work at church. She talked about the job she hoped to get in a hospital, working with cancer patients, once her criminal record was no longer shadowing every job application.

As the board granted her pardon, she let out a joyful little squeak: Oh!

Former President Barack Obama, who granted more presidential pardons and clemency requests than any president, used to send a letter to each recipient. America, he told them, was built on the idea that people can turn their lives around, and a pardon is a profound expression of that faith.

It will not be easy and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change, Obama wrote to an inmate named Evans Ray in the summer of 2016. I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong, and change your life for the better. So good luck and Godspeed.

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com 612-673-4008 Twitter: @stribrooks

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