On a rainy Wednesday afternoon, more than a dozen people, their attorneys and supporters packed into to a dimly lit hearing room in the Minnesota Judicial Center to ask for official forgiveness from the state.
They were gathering before the Minnesota Board of Pardons, the 120-year-old panel that has the power to effectively clear someone’s criminal record if they’ve shown they’ve changed their ways. It’s not an official judicial proceeding, but the board was set up in the state’s constitution as a final option, sometimes only used decades after someone has committed their crimes.
While the board is not an official judicial body, it requires forgiveness from the state’s highest powers: the attorney general, the chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court and the governor. They have the power to lessen offenders’ prison sentences — even get them out of jail if the evidence warrants it. But most often the board grants “pardon extraordinaries,” the term for legally absolving citizens of their crimes after they’ve served their time and shown demonstrable rehabilitation.
Pardons can mean a lot for those who receive one: It can help them get a job, qualify for a house or an apartment, buy a firearm or even vote.
But with only two meetings a year and little fanfare, the Board of Pardons is an oft-overlooked option within the criminal justice system, and fewer people pass the test these days. Over the last century, the state of Minnesota has gone from generously granting pardons to criminals to a system that only occasionally grants forgiveness, according to a recent analysis by MinnPost. While the board used to pardon people regularly for crimes like sexual and physical assault — even murder — today someone seeking clemency for disorderly conduct or theft might not receive an official pardon.
And Minnesota’s unique, three-person system sets a high bar: The vote to pardon someone must be unanimous. On Wednesday, not everyone would make it.
‘I want this to be my past’
Kimberly Dalzell readily acknowledges her record is “ugly.” She had four theft charges between 2002 and 2005, plus a disorderly conduct charge back in 2002. She spent years addicted to methamphetamines and cycled in and out of abusive relationships. When Dalzell found out she was two months pregnant with her second child — even while she was still on meth — she knew she needed immediate help.
She checked herself into a hospital and eventually worked closely with Roberta Opheim, the state ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities. On Wednesday, Opheim sat next to Dalzell at the Board of Pardon hearing to attest to her recovery. “I’ve never come before a board like this,” Opheim said. “But this is a completely changed person.”
Dalzell said she’s been clean and sober since 2005, and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton commended her for that. The second-term governor has struggled with addiction himself, checking into Hazelden’s Renewal Center back in 2007 for alcoholism. He’s been sober since then. Today, Dalzell is working as a drug and alcohol counselor on a part-time basis. She’s going back to school in January to get a bachelor’s degree in the field, but she’s worried she’ll have a hard time getting full-time work with her record.
“I’d really like to not have this record weighing me down when I apply for jobs or even when I talk about my life,” she said. “I want it to be my past.”
But Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea asked her about several recent speeding citations on Dalzell’s record, and she clarified the board’s role: It’s not just about forgiving someone for their past, it’s about seeing a real change in their behavior.
Dayton and Attorney General Lori Swanson voted in favor of the pardon, but Gildea said she wasn’t convinced. With a unanimous vote needed, that’s all it took for Dalzell’s pardon to be denied.
High bar for violent crimes
The odds were against David Carson. Between 1985 and 2000, he was charged with a felony for possession of a pistol four times, aggravated robbery, burglary and 5th degree assault.
Violent offenders must wait 10 years after their sentence has expired to be eligible for a pardon extraordinary, and even after that wait, violent offenses are rarely granted clemency from the Board of Pardons. From 1992 to 2012, about 82 percent of pardon extraordinaries granted by the board were for nonviolent crimes, according to data from the Department of Corrections.
“For me it was a way of life,” said Carson, who opened up in the packed hearing room about moving from group homes to abusive foster care as a child. “I had no hope for a future when I was younger.”
Today, Carson says he’s cleaned up his act. He’s a father now, and his daughter’s teacher came to the Board of Pardons to testify in his favor. What’s more, Carson has been a firefighter in Minneapolis for the last three years.
That got Dayton’s attention. “That’s courageous work,” he said.
Things seemed to be moving in Carson’s favor, until Gildea asked about the 1990 assault charge on his record. Carson was confused — he didn’t seem to remember what offense Gildea was asking about. She also pointed out that Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman also opposed his pardon because of the violent nature of his crimes. Swanson questioned the assault case, too, noting his record included domestic abuse training after the charge.
“I appreciate the work you’ve done in the community,” Gildea said, “but I cannot support this pardon.”
Pardons for no-shows
Robert Brenner was charged with a misdemeanor for having marijuana in his home back in 1971. Brenner lives in Colorado now and wants a job as a bus driver, but he can’t get one with the old Minnesota charge on his record. Donald Krogfus had two charges on his record, possession of a dangerous drug in 1969 and unlawful possession of marijuana in 1972.
Both offered strong cases for a pardon extraordinary: They lived for many years without any other major charges and they were trying to move on with their lives. But neither men showed up to the Board of Pardons on Wednesday to make their case.
That irked Dayton. “I don’t like this mail-in pardon,” Dayton said. “We can’t even ask them questions.”
In the end, however, the decision was unanimous. Both men were granted pardons.
Jeremy Gordhamer is into muscle cars. It’s a passion he’s always shared with his father, who took him to car shows when he was growing up. It was at one of those shows in Shakopee when Gordhamer, then 17, saw a set of car rims for a price that seemed too good to be true.
Turns out, it was. The rims were stolen, and eventually law enforcement traced them back to Gordhamer’s car. He was charged with a felony for receiving stolen property.
That was 12 years ago. Today, Gordhamer is a father and wants to become a police officer, but he can’t with the charge on his record. “I told my 13-year-old that he can be whatever he wants to be when he grows up,” Gordhamer said. “He asked me why I never became a police officer.”
Gordhamer did some research online and found out about the Minnesota Board of Pardons. It seemed like his only option, he said. He was nervous. The two people who had gone before him had compelling cases, but both were denied. It only took one person to block the pardon.
In Gordhamer’s case, the decision was unanimous. “Pardon granted,” Dayton said.
He exhaled loudly, as if he had been holding his breath for minutes. “Thank you.”