‘Everybody needs a 2nd chance:’ Hope for gubernatorial pardons renewed in Wisconsin
MADISON — Some are handwritten pleas. Others are typed.
They come on long pieces of yellow legal paper, other times on post cards. Some include photos.
More than 500 have sent letters since November. An additional 540 or so have called. A few dozen have emailed.
All are hoping that after eight years of Republican Gov. Scott Walker refusing to consider anyone’s request, Wisconsin’s new governor will follow through on his promise that the state’s top executive will again be issuing pardons and shortening prison sentences through commutations.
“The pardon process was designed for me,” Elandis Peete wrote to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in January. “I definitely made a mistake when I was younger, now being older I am much wiser. … If granted a pardon it will open up many doors of greater opportunity for me and my families’ future.”
Peete was convicted of felony drug possession in 1996, when he was 18, and released from prison two years later. Now 41, Peete runs a dump truck business that is working on the Foxconn project near Racine. But he said in a telephone interview that his felony conviction has kept him from getting other jobs. He hopes Evers shows him and others in a similar situation some leniency.
“Everybody needs a second chance,” Peete said.
Lynelle Morse, 56, was convicted of a felony when she was 19 years old for her role in the selling of marijuana to an undercover police officer. She was sentenced to one year of probation, but the felony on her record resulted in the revocation of her license to drive a school bus.
“It’s not like I hurt anybody,” Morse said of her crime, which she said happened when she was “young and foolish.” ”Does a person need to pay for this their entire life?”
Their requests are among the hundreds submitted to Evers since his win in November. The Associated Press reviewed the submitted pardon applications, letters of inquiry and other documents Evers has received related to granting pardons. Many of them are sent by prison inmates seeking a commutation of their sentence. Others are from people like Morse and Peete who have served their time and want a pardon to help them move on.
At least one request was for a dead person who was at the center of one of Wisconsin’s most famous murder cases. Laurie Bembenek, a former Milwaukee police officer and Playboy club hostess convicted of killing her then-husband’s ex-wife in 1982, died in 2010 while a pardon request was pending before Doyle.
Her attorney is renewing the request with Evers.
Bembenek’s request was one of 1,400 applications pending as of November 2011 when Walker broke with long-held, bipartisan practice and suspended issuing pardons. Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and his successor, Republican Scott McCallum, issued a combined 262 pardons from 1987 through 2002. Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle granted nearly 300 during his eight years in office.
Evers sees granting pardons as part of broader changes to the criminal justice system. While a relatively small tool, it could help to shorten “ridiculous sentences,” said David Liners, the executive director of WISDOM, a Wisconsin network of faith-based organizations best known for its work to reduce the number of people in prisons.
Issuing pardons and granting clemency don’t always break along party lines, said Mark Osler, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, who specializes in sentencing. The tools are commonly used in some conservative states whose leaders believe in the power of redemption and mercy, he said.
Governors in 30 states, including Wisconsin, have the exclusive power to grant pardons, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Restoration of Rights Project. In 10 other states, governors must first get approval from another entity, such as a pardons board.
The Wisconsin Constitution grants the governor the power to grant pardons for any crime short of treason and impeachment. Pardons are a form of clemency, or leniency, given to criminals. Another type of clemency is a commuted sentence, which prisoners sometimes seek to reduce their sentence.
A pardon doesn’t erase or seal a conviction, but it does restore the right to own a gun; to vote; to be on a jury; to possess firearms; to hold public office; and to hold various licenses. A pardon doesn’t keep a person’s criminal record from showing up on background checks, but applicants often insist clemency makes them more attractive to employers.
Evers has yet to name members to the pardons board, which reviews applications and makes recommendations for pardons and commutations. Evers also has not set up a system for submitting applications — but that hasn’t stopped more than 1,000 people already calling, emailing or writing his office to make their case.
“There’s going to be a flood,” Liners said. “I’m afraid they’re going to get overwhelmed.”