One by one they adjusted the microphone, looked up at Minnesota’s governor, and unearthed memories they spent years trying to bury.
A man with long white hair apologized when his hearing aids didn’t pick up the sound, then recalled a day in the early 1980s when he crawled through the skylight of a laundromat and broke into the coin machine. A young woman wept with embarrassment, remembering how a J.C. Penney security guard stopped her and a group of college friends as they tried to slip out of the store with armfuls of clothes. A single mother who once used stolen grocery store gift cards to feed her children promised she was a changed woman, trying to help others avoid the same kind of desperate decisions that marred her life.
For seven hours, spread across two afternoons earlier in December, a parade of people with past convictions appeared before the Board of Pardons and asked the state of Minnesota to formally forget the crimes they cannot. Each was hoping to earn a “pardon extraordinary,” meaning they’d no longer have to list the convictions that prevented many from getting jobs, apartments, or military promotions.
To get it, each would have to make their case to three of the most powerful people in the state: Gov. Mark Dayton, Attorney General Lori Swanson and Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea.
A few pardon applicants brought along family members or a lawyer to speak on their behalf. But often it was just a single person, alone at a table in a hearing room of the Minnesota Senate Building, pleading for a second chance.
“That’s one of the things that makes it so powerful,” Swanson said. “They just come, they sit at a table with a box of Kleenex, talking to us without counsel, sort of baring their soul in front of the world.”
By the time the pardon applicants get to the table to tell their stories, the three members of the Board of Pardons have already done their homework. They’ve reviewed the applicants’ background histories, their explanations of how they’ve straightened out their lives, and letters submitted by people involved in the original cases, including judges, prosecutors and crime victims.
Some of the people who took their turns at the board’s last meeting spilled out their confessions in a rush. There were drinking problems, abusive relationships, crews of teenage friends with a bad habit of ending up in the back of squad cars.
Others, sensing opportunity or failing to follow instructions, didn’t mention some of their previous convictions. Their pardons were denied.
“In some cases you wonder: What in the world are they thinking?” Swanson said. “We’re going to find it. Put it down.”
Few of the cases that make it to the board involve violent crimes. In December there were just two: a man who killed a child while driving drunk, and a man who robbed a video store in the early 1990s. Both were denied.
Even though the majority of the crimes are nonviolent, the standards for a pardon are high. Gildea drew a hard line on traffic infractions, grilling applicants about speeding and parking tickets.
One woman explained she’d spent the past two decades trying to make amends for her crime: welfare fraud. She’d served her sentence, paid back the money and was working on a Ph.D. in counseling. But she’d also picked up a few dozen parking tickets.
Gildea asked, why? Then she asked if the woman understood why the tickets were relevant to the pardon. Then she asked the same questions, again and again, like a prosecutor trying to poke holes in a witness’ testimony. Finally, the chief justice agreed to the pardon.
Other applicants weren’t so lucky. A middle-aged man who kept a clean record since his burglary conviction two decades ago had one major blemish: a long history of speeding tickets. When pushed to explain himself, the man said he was into cars — including, sometimes, fast ones.
“I’m kind of a motor head,” he said, laughing nervously.
Gildea didn’t find it funny. The pardon was denied.
“I think that the driving record can provide an insight into a person, in a way,” Gildea said. “It’s a small piece of information, but information is really important. ... We decide if we think this person is of good character and reputation, sufficient to be granted a pardon extraordinary. That use of the word ‘extraordinary’ means something to me, and that’s what I’m looking for.”
Of the 27 applications the board considered this December, just eight pardons were granted.
A ninth applicant is likely to see a pardon once he provides more documents about his mental health treatment.
Were Dayton deciding on his own, there would have been more pardons. In several instances, Gildea and Swanson voted against pardons that Dayton was willing to grant.
During the hearings, the governor was frequently the most open and conversational with the applicants.
When one man described struggles with alcohol, Dayton assured him he understood: he, too, had battled with addiction. After the woman who stole the gift cards described years of working for a nonprofit group, and her ambitions of becoming a teacher, Dayton appeared to be moved.
“I believe you deserve, you have earned, a second chance with a clean slate,” he said. He was overruled.
Still, Dayton is cautious. The possibility of making the wrong decision — the kind that could end with someone getting hurt — weighs on him.
In 2008, Dayton recalled, a board that included Swanson and then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty pardoned Jeremy Giefer of Vernon Center on a conviction related to having sex with his underage girlfriend.
Two years after the pardon, Giefer was charged with sexually assaulting a teenage girl repeatedly over a period of several years.
The charges were dropped when the alleged victim recanted, but Giefer was jailed for violating a no-contact order with the teen.
The whole ordeal became campaign fodder when Pawlenty began his run for president.
“I’m sure they exercised their best decisions ... but something like that is haunting,” Dayton said. “That’s why each one of these you approach with real trepidation.”