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A Recognition of Rehabilitation : Some Former Felons Find Solace, Forgiveness in Presidential Pardon

May 31, 1987|TED GUP | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Craig Martin will tell you himself, he was a bad man. At 14, he was stealing hubcaps. At 16, it was cars. At 21, he was holding up liquor stores. At 23, while on parole for armed robbery, Martin robbed a bank in Chicago, then crossed over to Gary, Ind., and robbed another. Nine hours later he was behind bars--bars he attempted to cut through with a smuggled hacksaw. The year was 1962, and Martin was on his way to Leavenworth.

Last year, President Reagan, a man not known to be soft on criminals, pardoned Craig Martin.

Martin is one of more than 300 men and women pardoned by Reagan, whose use of the power has been the most sparing in this century, according to a Justice Department official.

Cases such as Martin's rarely make the news as do those of more celebrated petitioners such as Richard M. Nixon and Iva Ikuko Toguri D'Aquino, better known as "Tokyo Rose." Pardons have been extended to men and women who have served time for kidnaping, armed robbery, bribery, counterfeiting, embezzling, extortion, racketeering, perjury and fraud.

A President's Option

The source of the President's pardoning power is the U.S. Constitution. The Justice Department considers that power absolute, but publishes eligibility guidelines--the petitioner must have completed his or her sentence at least five years before and must have proved that he or she is now a law-abiding citizen.

A pardon does not erase a criminal record or reduce a sentence. Sometimes a petitioner hopes that a pardon will help win him reinstatement to legal or medical practice, a license to sell securities or to engage in some other regulated business. A pardon can, depending on state law, restore the right to vote, to serve on a jury or to sell firearms. For many, however, a presidential pardon answers only the simple human need to be forgiven for past transgressions.

David C. Stephenson, pardon attorney of the Justice Department, said that many applicants want "to receive something from the President that acts as a recognition of rehabilitation, that the petitioner has become a responsible citizen again and has been forgiven by his President, if not by his God."

Ease Social Stigma

"Another common reason," said Raymond P. Theim, Justice's senior attorney adviser, "is to clear the family name before they die, to remove the stigma that's attached by reason of a conviction."

"To me, (a felony conviction) was a real weight to have over my head and my family's head," said Edwin Dare Phillips, 49, a Roanoke, Va., resident who in 1977 committed a felony by selling a 1911 Colt .45 at a gun show. The buyer turned out to be an agent of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Phillips, an electrical contractor and builder, did not have a license to sell weapons.

Phillips was pardoned last month. Part of his reason for seeking a pardon was that he wanted to be licensed to hunt again and hoped to recover his license to own a gun. But there was a deeper reason as well: "I had been a law-abiding citizen all my life . . . . It's just a big relief for my wife and myself."

A presidential pardon is not a finding of innocence, merely of forgiveness. For some who believe that they did nothing wrong, the pardon confirms their belief in their innocence.

Concern for Children

Edward Allman Coppage Jr. of Oakton, Va., was convicted in 1979 of selling unregistered securities.

"At the time this happened to me, it was the worst experience I had ever suffered in my life," recalled Coppage, 58, who today runs a firm that sells "ballistic-protective" clothing.

In his 1984 application for a pardon, he wrote, "It is extremely difficult to preach right and wrong to your children and grandchildren when you are a convicted felon. Although I feel I was a victim of circumstances, it disturbs me tremendously to have this charge against me and I would appreciate being pardoned for this mistake."

Reagan pardoned Coppage on March 11. "I got tears in my eyes," said Coppage. "I never felt I did anything wrong, and it was gratifying to me. . . . The meaning to me--and this could be in error--but in my mind, it is proof that I never did anything wrong."

In some cases, however, not even a presidential pardon brings relief. Barbara Lou Ward's troubles began in the spring of 1963 when she was a 27-year-old bank teller in San Antonio. Little by little, she took money from the bank's Christmas Club Fund, $40 here, $20 there--money that went to pay for clothes on layaway. Today, she says, her theft was a desperate effort to get attention at a time when her marriage was failing.

Embezzler Turned Self in

"I realized if I kept doing this I would have a very difficult time paying it back, so I decided to come forward with the truth and pay my penalty." She turned herself in and was later convicted on three counts of embezzlement.

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