Hundreds seek pardons of criminal convictions in Maine each year, but few are granted

James Chamberlain of Waterville pleads his case to the Governor’'s Board on Executive Clemency in Augusta in January. His petition for pardon of a drug trafficking conviction was not granted.
Russ Dillingham | Sun Journal
James Chamberlain of Waterville pleads his case to the Governor’'s Board on Executive Clemency in Augusta in January. His petition for pardon of a drug trafficking conviction was not granted.
By Judy Meyer, Sun Journal
Posted June 02, 2013, at 6:29 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — When Timothy Stotz was 19, he and a couple of buddies sneaked into the closed Topsham Fairgrounds, hungry for fried dough.

The dough kiosk was locked, so they broke in.

A nearby security guard heard the ruckus and called police.

After a short chase, Stotz and his friends were handcuffed and spent the night in jail.

Afraid to tell his mother about the incident and unable to afford a lawyer, Stotz decided to represent himself in court. He pleaded guilty to theft, paid a $100 fine and went on with his life.

That was 23 years ago.

Stotz is now a respected financial broker living and working in Vermont. He is married with two children and volunteers in his community.

Early this year, Stotz appeared before the Governor’s Board on Executive Clemency to request a pardon.

“The [financial] industry I’m in is changing,” he told the board, as states — including Vermont — are considering tightened regulations for brokers in the post-Bernie Madoff era.

For Stotz, that could mean he may not qualify for a license in the future unless Maine pardons his misdemeanor crime. That worry keeps him up at night, he said, even though his employer and his clients are aware of his background.

“I have been teased about this perpetually” over the years by friends and family, he said. “I wear it. It’s my past.”

But, “there are now instances where people in my same situation are being fired as new legislation is being passed,” Stotz said. “It scares the heck out of me.”

The board was sympathetic, and last month Gov. Paul LePage pardoned the fairground theft. That doesn’t mean the conviction has been erased, only that the crime has been forgiven.

For Stotz, it means his broker’s license and livelihood are no longer in danger.

–—

Stotz is among hundreds of people each year who seek a governor’s pardon, and one of only four to receive a pardon this year.

Many of the pardon applications that come before the clemency board are from people who commit minor crimes in their youth — quite often under the influence of alcohol or drugs — and later suffer when that criminal conviction makes it difficult to get a job or qualify for a student loan.

It is what the board sees as the “young and stupid” consequences of life.

Board member Pamela Ames, a former assistant district attorney who now operates a solo practice in Waterville, said her participation in the clemency process has made her a better defense lawyer. Too often, she said, defendants opt to plead guilty and pay a quick fine to resolve a criminal case. But, she said, “a criminal conviction is a forever thing.” It follows a person around, and young people often don’t fully understand the consequences of a permanent criminal record.

Social media, board members acknowledge, is making it much more difficult for people with criminal convictions to get job interviews, never mind job offers, and the “I can’t get a job” theme has become common during pardon hearings.

Candace Roy of West Paris, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor theft in 2007, was emancipated and raising two children when her former boyfriend dropped several stolen items in a cart Roy was pushing after leaving the store. She was charged as an accessory and was happy to pay a small fine to avoid jail.

“At the time of the charge,” she told the pardon board, “I was unaware it was going to cause me a problem in employment in the health care field.”

But the conviction did wake her up, she said, to the need to seek an education.

Roy earned her GED through the Oxford Hills Adult Education program and recently graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in health and human services. Even though her education qualifies her to work in health care, the state will not grant Roy the licenses she needs for employment with a misdemeanor conviction on her record.

Standing before the pardon board earlier this year, Roy talked about her two children — both of whom have special needs — her volunteerism with Community Concepts and her desire to advocate for children in Oxford Hills.

She talked about how hard it was to earn her degree and how she wants to take what she has learned to her community.

Her petition was granted, and Roy’s theft charge was pardoned.

–—

The pardon process is an arduous one, and it can be expensive.

Petitioners are subject to background checks and must write an autobiography as part of their application. They must also post four separate legal notices in newspapers to let the public know they are seeking pardons. And, although petitioners are not required to hire a lawyer, many do to help fill out the application and prepare for hearing.

One recent petitioner estimated it took two weeks to fill out the paperwork and she spent $400 in legal notice fees. Another petitioner said he spent more than $3,000 on attorney’s fees and legal notices, and spent weeks preparing his case.

Neither petitioner earned a pardon.

A person must wait five years after conviction to seek a pardon, and a pardon is granted only for “extraordinary and exceptional reasons,” said Auburn defense lawyer Lenny Sharon, who is chairman of the clemency board.

According to Sharon, the board doesn’t consider questions of innocence, guilt or whether defendants believe they got a fair trial. The board considers only why those seeking pardons believe they ought to be pardoned, including professional or personal roadblocks they might be facing because of criminal convictions.

Pardons are not granted for felons seeking to get back gun rights or for people seeking travel to Canada, because there are other remedies for these problems, Sharon said, through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Canadian Embassy.

What the board may consider in recommending a pardon, he said, is whether — but for a criminal conviction — a person may qualify for a job, a license, a service or a program.

“It has [to be] a specific deterrent for the person,” he said, and the applicant must be sincere and the request genuine.

“It’s not a matter of being empathetic,” Sharon said. “It’s a matter of getting to the truth of a matter,” and determining whether a petitioner has accepted responsibility for his or her past and provides an exceptional reason for a pardon.

Pardons are granted sparingly, Sharon said, because “judges intend criminal convictions should stay on your record. He or she wanted people to know you’ve been convicted.”

–—

Maine is considering joining 16 other states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan and California, that allow certain criminal convictions to be expunged.

LD 549, a bill presented by Rep. Joan Welsh, D-Rockport, would allow anyone 21 or older to seek expungement of a single misdemeanor crime committed between the ages of 18 and 20.

This process would be considerably easier, faster and less expensive than the current process of applying for a pardon or commutation and, unlike a pardon, would erase a criminal conviction and its underlying arrest.

The bill, as written, would require a petitioner to seek an expungement order from the secretary of state’s office through an as-yet-undefined process.

This sets expungement apart from the pardon process, which is overseen by the Department of Corrections and the governor’s office.

The bill, which was heard before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee in April but has not yet been voted out for consideration by the full Legislature, drew support from the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the National Association of Social Workers and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, among others.

The governor also supports the concept of expungement, according to Michael Cianchette, chief counsel to the governor, but LePage has reservations about the draft bill and is waiting to see the final version before taking a position on it.

Samantha Gilbert, a 22-year-old University of Maine student, provided written testimony in support of the bill.

According to Gilbert, when she was 18 years old she was shopping with a friend when the friend dropped a bracelet in Gilbert’s purse. Gilbert “took a guilty charge and has regretted it every day” since.

She said she fully expects to have trouble finding a job after college because employers will see her as a risk.

“I’m not a bad person, and I am being punished every day for pleading guilty,” she wrote.

The bill would permit expungement for nonviolent crimes only, and the Judiciary Committee is considering an amendment requested by the Maine Youth Camp Association to exclude all sex crimes from this process.

Rep. Wayne Mitchell of the Penobscot Nation has asked the committee to consider expanding the expungement allowance for anyone older than 21 who commits a single misdemeanor and has no further criminal convictions for a minimum of 10 years. He argued that people who committed minor crimes later in life but then stayed out of trouble should be given the same opportunities as someone who committed what some committee members called “youthful indiscretions.”

Dana Strout, a lawyer in Camden, testified that he was “very much in favor of giving people a second chance when bumping up against our judiciary system because, in many ways, it’s unyielding.”

Strout said he has seen teens plead guilty when they should have given it more thought. “Sometimes they don’t have a lawyer with them,” he said. “Sometimes they just have their parents. Sometimes they don’t know what they’re doing.” And the decisions they make in court are permanent.

“They don’t look down the road and see what they’re going to be doing in 10 years, even five years,” he said.

The bill, which gained the support of a committee majority, could be brought to the floor for a vote this week.

–—

LePage, to date, has granted slightly fewer pardons per year than Maine’s most recent governors, signing 23 pardons in the past two years. However, according to Deb Marceau, secretary to Department of Corrections Associate Commissioner Cindy Brann, the department has not yet received any signed paperwork from the governor’s office. So, while the pardons are signed, an employment or criminal background check would not yet indicate any of them exist.

The Corrections Department could not provide an explanation for the delay.

Last fall, the Governor’s Board on Executive Clemency received 43 applications for a pardon. Each of those petitions was reviewed and, of those, 10 were heard. Of those 10, four pardons were granted.

Of the six failing to get a pardon, it was clear in most cases that board members were not hearing the things necessary for a pardon.

Timothy Scott Hewes of Holden and Preston Whitmore of Benton are both professional truck drivers and each made a case that their convictions prevent them from hauling certain loads across the Canadian border, but the board pressed each man regarding their other criminal convictions and traffic violations before rejecting the petitions.

Jessica Hall of North Carolina, who teleconferenced the board from Sicily where she has recently relocated with her newlywed husband, sought pardon for a drug possession conviction stemming from a 2005 college trip to attend the North Atlantic Blues Festival in Rockland. She told the board she was too high to remember what happened, or what she was charged with, and said her chief worry was that her past conviction would interfere with her husband’s green card application.

In 1990, Richard Matthews of Bangor was 18 when he was convicted of felony burglary and theft at a summer camp in Littleton. He is now working as a professional engineer and could not give the board an example of how his conviction has ever hindered his employment.

There’s an interesting give and take with applicants during the hearing process, said Sharon, who has served on the board for 18 years.

“I take a hard line with people lying to me… . If I think someone is being less than truthful, then I’m going to cross-examine him like I would in court,” he said. “But, other than that, I’ve always sat on the side of the criminal defendant.”

–—

That hard line was clear during some of the most recent pardon requests.

When James Chamberlain of Waterville, seeking pardon of a 1991 felony drug charge, talked about his children, Sharon interrupted him, asking, “What type of a role model is smoking pot all the time? How do you explain that?”

“You’re absolutely right,” Chamberlain said. “I was not a good role model,” but said his children learned from his mistakes and his youngest son “never smoked a cigarette, took drugs or had any alcohol because of what I did.”

The board was also hard on Hewes, questioning him about multiple traffic tickets, two OUI convictions and a misdemeanor criminal mischief conviction in 1987 that were all separate from the felony theft he was seeking a pardon for.

That theft was committed while he was on probation for criminal mischief. Ames asked: “Didn’t being on probation mean anything to you?”

Ames answered: “I wasn’t raised to go out and steal stuff. I wasn’t raised that way.”

And Matthews, who was grilled about convictions for driving to endanger, OUI and disorderly conduct — all of which occurred after the felony burglary and theft charge he was seeking a pardon for — repeatedly told the board the charges were all a result of being “with the wrong people at the wrong time. Police officers charged whoever was involved with the situation instead of finding out the whole story.”

The board also questioned Matthews’ willingness to accept responsibility for his actions.

But, when petitioner Amber Flanders of Warren — seeking a pardon of an assault conviction — talked about her children and about how important they are to her, she started clutching her hands and crying. Ames pushed a box of tissues toward the woman and someone else poured her a glass of water so she could compose herself.

Flanders’ petition for pardon was granted.

When Stotz broke down in tears and looked over to his wife for support, he apologized to the board for being so emotional. Said Ames: “That’s OK. You’re not taking it cavalierly and that’s important to this board.”

And, despite Sharon’s opening explanation to petitioners that pardons would be granted only for “extraordinary and exceptional reasons,” that’s not a regulation. It’s a guideline.

Richard Hoffmann, who is 70 and now retired in Port St. Lucie, Fla., was granted a pardon. He’s not looking for a job, and his felony arson charge never hindered his ability to find work or finance housing. He just doesn’t want his grandchildren to remember him as a felon or to think of him only as the man who committed a desperate act when he was depressed.

A recovering alcoholic, Hoffmann hired someone to burn down Wings Hill in 1996, an inn and restaurant he owned in Winslow.

He had been splitting his time between Maine and Florida and, when his parents died in 1995 and 1996, Hoffmann had trouble coping with the loss and couldn’t keep up with his business obligations.

Since there was no mortgage on the inn and it was insured, he told the board that he thought if he made it disappear his problems would go away. At the last moment, Hoffmann said he reconsidered the plan, but Maine State Police had already been tipped off by the man Hoffmann hired, and Hoffmann was arrested.

“I’d never been in trouble with the law before, never been in trouble since then,” he said. “I don’t want to carry the burden of being a felon around any more.”

“It appears as though you just snapped,” Sharon said.

“Yes.” Hoffman said.

–—

The pardon board seeks applications every three months and is in the process of reviewing a fresh batch of 43 applications now. The applications chosen from that pool will be scheduled for hearings — which are open to the public — the third week in July.

 

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/06/02/news/state/hundreds-seek-pardons-of-criminal-convictions-in-maine-each-year-but-few-are-granted/ printed on August 21, 2014