Before 8:30 a.m., the waiting room was already packed with the presumably repentant and regretful — people who had completed prison sentences and were now awaiting their chance to convince the state’s parole board that they were reformed people, that they were deserving of the state’s forgiveness.
Among them: the nurse who shot her husband while blackout drunk. A once jilted lover who smashed the windows in her boyfriend’s car. A seemingly well mannered auto mechanic who sought forgiveness for a criminal sexual conduct conviction against a child.
Most of the former offenders had completed their prison sentences years earlier. And they had stayed out of trouble since.
That meant they now qualified for pardons, the state’s legal version of forgiveness, that would free them of parole or any other legal consequence of being convicted of their crime. Pardons could also pave the way for better jobs and give them back their S.C. right to own a firearm.
The seven-member board (officially called the S.C. Board of Paroles and Pardons) sat around a U-shaped table in an adjacent room, prepping for their day’s work. The board would be very busy this Wednesday in September. More than 60 pardon applicants were scheduled to appear before them in the narrow, fluorescent-lit meeting room located in a nondescript state office building near Columbia’s Five Points entertainment district.
Each applicant would get roughly 10 minutes, give or take, to prove they had turned their lives around.
Board members would listen mostly in silence, viewing on iPads the pages and pages of employment and criminal history and notes investigators had made available to them prior to the hearing. They would ask an occasional question, but board members left most of the talking to the chairman, whose questions sought to determine what kind of person stood before the board.
The board members’ decisions are largely subjective, but based on simple questions: what is the likelihood ex-convicts will re-offend? Have they turned a new leaf, turned their lives around?
Within a matter of seconds of an applicant leaving the hearing room, lights flash up on a voting box and the chairman reads the results: pardon granted or not granted. Then, an investigator follows the applicant into a cramped hallway or out near the elevators to give him or her the verdict.
In some cases, it’s clear a person is on the straight and narrow, said Henry Eldridge, a retired pharmaceutical company division manager, Vietnam veteran and chairman of the pardon board.
“You can see it (an ex-offender’s life) turn around,” Eldridge said. “We’ve granted pardons to murderers before. And we’ve granted pardons to sex offenders.”
In reality, murderers and sex offenders have only received pardons about 8 percent and 10 percent of the time, respectively, making them the least likely of criminals to be granted pardons, according to a State newspaper analysis of pardons requested and granted from 2007 to 2017.
Overall, 64 percent of applicants have received pardons in the past decade.
This particular day would be a good day for clemency. Over the course of about eight hours, the board would grant pardons to roughly three out of four applicants. Pardons were granted for manslaughter, arson, robberies, assaults, bad checks and on and on.
The board was not so forgiving to applicants whose crimes were against children, or those who showed no remorse.
Violent crimes can win pardons
A young couple came in, she with a worried look, and he calm and hopeful. He was wearing a gray suit jacket over an oxford with a bow tie. She wore a dress.
They were there to ask forgiveness for a series of crimes. The most serious was manslaughter, a conviction he got after killing a man in a fist fight.
“It’s kind of hard to look back at that person,” the man told the pardon board, adding he’s older now, he’s served his time, he has a family and a career. “My mindset is totally different,” he said. He told them how he used prison to better himself through reading and learning brick masonry.
“I never even shot a gun much less intended to kill anybody,” he said, adding he’d “give anything” to take it back.
Now he’s a small business owner in construction and a father who has been “shot down” for opportunities for work and to do things with his children at school. To help inmates like he once was, he does construction demonstrations in the prison where he served his time.
His wife fought back tears telling how her husband was a great dad and a completely changed man. “His past is his past, and it just holds us back a lot from moving forward, for our family and our kids.”
He was not the only person with a violent criminal past to win a pardon that day.
So did a man who had committed arson two decades ago in a addiction-driven, self-destructive bent. Now, he said he had turned his life around and was fearful the conviction without a pardon would prevent him from getting a professional license in engineering.
It reflected positively on the ex-convict when his family, his addiction recovery sponsor and the solicitor who prosecuted him showed up to sing his praises.
“Bubba wasn’t much worth killing back then, to be honest with you,” the former prosecutor joked. “But he has straightened his life out.”
Money problems common
One woman said she wrote some bad checks years ago “to provide for my kids, because my husband, he didn’t do what he was supposed to do. He was on drugs back then. So I was basically doing what I had to do to take care of my kids.”
Her voice quivered as she said she regretted her mistakes and told the board how far her children had come. One is graduating from a South Carolina university soon.
Her story was similar to others seeking forgiveness for similar financial crimes. Another woman said she thought her paycheck would register in the bank in time for the bad check she wrote to clear.
A man said he took the fall for his wife stealing money from his employer. He’d paid the few thousands of dollars in restitution, but he was passed up for a truck-driving job and opportunity to coach his nephew’s little league team.
Another man said he got roped into committing an armed robbery after riding from Connecticut to South Carolina with a group of guys who had no money for gas or anything else.
“It was a bad decision. I regret that the rest of my life,” he told the pardon board, dressed in a knitted kufi cap and full length tunic, garb signaling his devotion to Islam. A Muslim woman accompanied him and testified to his commitment to praying five times a day and to helping her manage her rural property.
The man said he was seeking the pardon not for any practical reason but as proof he paid his dues.
“I just turned 70 years old. I’m not a person of crime. I try to live right. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said.
First offense, late in life
A woman in a blue patterned dress and pearl earrings and necklace sat between her sister and her husband. She came to ask forgiveness for one conviction.
In a moment of blackout drunkenness in 2014, she shot her husband. A bullet hit his wrist. She was charged with criminal domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature.
Her testimony gave insight into the intense dramas that unfold in private spaces and how they can lead to trouble in a flash for people who, otherwise, appear to have lived responsible, crime-free lives.
“You could be in jail for murder, you know that,” Eldridge told the woman, a nurse who’d lost her license to practice after the incident.
Now in her 60s, the woman said she was enjoying a slower pace. She’d had a clear record up until the time of the incident, which came after she’d worked as a nurse for 40 years. “I’ve been high-level, high-stress functioning all my life.”
Work and helping take care of her grandchildren, combined with arguing with her husband, had become overwhelming, she said.
She ultimately didn’t recall the incident, because she had been drinking too much wine, she said.
Her husband, who sat next to her wearing dark-shade glasses, said his wife hadn’t had a drop of alcohol since the incident.
“She’s a totally different person now,” he said.
One of the board members asked, “Do y’all still keep a gun in the house?”
“Absolutely not,” she said emphatically. “That was a big issue, a big conflict with us. ... One of the things that led up to the incident was I found out he had been hiding a gun under his pillow on a bed where our grandkid, my grandkids were playing and I was absolutely…”
“Alright, thank you ma’am. That’s fine,” a board member interjected, moving the conversation along.
The woman was granted a pardon, in part, on grounds she did not intend to try to return to nursing, Eldridge said.
How not to win a pardon
Late in the day, after dozens of pardon hearings, another young man was called in for his time before his judges. He walked in, strutting slowly, and sat down at the table facing the pardon board.
Chairman Eldridge asked him an opening question: “How you doing today?”
“I’m doing alright ‘til about three hours ago,” he said, a hint of annoyance in his voice.
“What happened?” the chairman asked.
“I had my hand, butt, everything going to sleep.”
The reference to the long wait for his hearing made a couple of people chuckle in the room.
Asked how the pardon would help him, the man said: “Well, you want me to tell you how it’d help me?”
Then deliberately and slowly, he raised his cellphone from his lap to the tabletop and proceeded to tap on the screen, not raising his gaze to the board.
“When you type in my name on Bing — that’s Microsoft’s search engine — you type in my name (and) Rock Hill, it’s got mugshot after mugshot (of me). So that’s how it would help me. Get some of that mess off there, those misdemeanor petty larcenies.”
“Tell me about this criminal domestic violence charge. What was that all about? Who was that against?” the chairman asked.
“Criminal domestic violence,” the man repeated slowly. “Well, you know, that’s a good, that’s a good one,” he said, adding he hadn’t been in a relationship in a long time. “So I guess that would be my baby’s mother, what 15 years ago?”
Eldridge: “It was 2003.”
The man: “15 years ago. So I’m not one for domestic violence. I’m not one to argue.”
Eldridge: “Well, evidently, you argued back in 2003. You got charged with it, so what was going on?”
The man: “That’s a good question. I have no idea.”
Eldridge asked the man what he does for a living — he’s a licensed contractor — and how the pardon would help him.
“Well, like I said, it will help me get this stuff off of Bing.”
“OK, alright,” Eldridge said, adding, “Any questions from any board members?”
“Step outside, sir. We’ll get an answer for your shortly.”
After the door closed behind the man, knowing glances darted around the room, and red lights jumped up on the voting box.
Moments later, Eldridge announced that the man would not be granted a pardon. The decision was unanimous.