They heard gut-wrenching stories of sexual assault, criminal vehicular homicide, manslaughter and theft. Stories of transformation from people who had become coaches, mentors, business owners and addiction counselors.
Now under the leadership of Gov. Tim Walz, the Minnesota Board of Pardons on Tuesday considered absolving people’s criminal pasts, often deciding to grant pardons only for those taking full responsibility for their crimes.
But in other cases, that wasn’t enough.
Amreya Shefa begged the board for mercy. She told members that her husband brought her to the United States in 2012, then raped her daily.
In December 2013 she killed her husband, Habibi Tesema, and was charged with murder. Following a trial, a judge concluded that she was a rape victim defending herself when he tried to sexually assault her again, but that the amount of force she used to defend herself was excessive and avoidable.
After the conviction, Immigration and Customs Enforcement moved to deport her back to Ethiopia, where she believes her husband’s family will kill her as revenge. To avoid deportation, she needs a full pardon, which the board hasn’t granted in more than 30 years
“I am truly, deeply remorseful,” she told the board via phone from the Kandiyohi County jail, where she’s being held.
After she spoke, her husband’s family testified. They called her a cunning liar and believe she made up the rape accusations out of jealousy. They said they live in fear of her.
“She murdered the father of his children in front of his family,” said Ahmed Tesema, who is Habibi Tesema’s brother.
After the family testified for more than a half-hour toward the end of the day, Walz called for a break. When the board returned, he asked that Shefa’s hearing be rescheduled to allow the family to finish testifying.
Lorie Gildea, chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court and a member of the Pardons Board, said she would not support the pardon.
She repeated what Shefa’s judge told her at her sentencing: “You had options available to you that night. Options you did not take.”
She also noted that the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted Shefa for murder, also opposed the pardon.
Shefa’s hearing was still postponed, with Walz saying he wanted more information. But unless Gildea changes her mind, she likely already made any future hearing moot. The board needs to vote unanimously for a pardon to be granted.
The board’s work started before Tuesday’s hearing. Walz said he had been poring over the cases for weeks, preparing for the first time he would determine whether to wipe clean part of someone’s criminal past. The board heard about 17 cases on Tuesday.
Walz said he came into the hearings with an open mind, but said he knew what his vote would be in at least one case. That plea for clemency, from Thomas Ondov, was roundly rejected. Ondov was convicted of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in 1991 after he drugged and raped his then-niece, who was a teenager.
Amy Fredrickson, the survivor of the sexual assault, urged the board not to pardon Ondov. She said the board is revictimizing people by having them testify in these situations. Her testimony was the hardest thing she ever had to do, Fredrickson said, and it is “absolutely wrong” that the state would consider pardoning someone who committed such an offense.
“I believe [Walz] when he says he was going to look at it and talk about making reforms. ... It was worth everything I had to go through if that’s what comes out of it,” Fredrickson said.
Walz said while there is value in victims’ statements, he doesn’t want people to feel revictimized.
However, he was not supportive of eliminating the possibility of a pardon for people who commit certain types of offenses, like first-degree criminal sexual conduct.
“I certainly, in the case of Ms. Fredrickson, I was not entertaining any way of granting that because of the horrific nature of that. But I think codifying that leaves the human element and the human compassion piece out of it,” he said, adding that it’s important to have a process that allows everyone the opportunity to seek such redemption.
Both Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison, the third member of the board, emerged with suggestions of how the pardon process or the broader state criminal justice system need to be re-examined.
Walz said he is looking at potential changes, such as creating a Clemency Review Commission. A bill was introduced in the past legislative session to create a commission that would review applications for pardons and other forms of clemency and make recommendations to the Board of Pardons.
“I think it would be helpful if part of this process with the Clemency Board were experts both in the law and others. I think there’s a way that we can keep the spirit of what we’re doing here,” Walz said.
Walz said he is still reviewing potential changes to the board is not yet committed to any particular approach.
Ellison said the state should be looking at how to deal with the “collateral consequences” of criminal convictions. Many of the people seeking pardons Tuesday talked about their past as an employment hurdle.
“If people could do their time and not have to worry about job consequences so much, maybe that would reserve this process for folks who really have made extraordinary efforts to reform themselves,” Ellison said. “But if everything’s riding on a pardon in order to be able to be, you know, economically viable, then it puts probably more pressure on the system than should really be warranted.”