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S. Dakota Keeps Names of Pardoned Criminals Secret

March 23, 2003|From Associated Press

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — South Dakota governors have granted a number of pardons over the last two decades, but the state is keeping the names secret under a 1983 law designed to give people a fresh start.

Among the few known beneficiaries: American Indian activist Russell Means, convicted in a 1974 courthouse riot, and Ron Wheeler, a former state transportation chief who pleaded guilty to driving drunk.

Over the last few months, as the cases have come to light, the secrecy provision has been fodder for talk shows, a bill in the Legislature to modify it and a lawsuit by three people, listed as John Doe 1, John Doe No. 2 and Jane Doe, who were pardoned but don't want their names released.

Under the law, once a pardon is granted, every document from arrest to conviction is automatically sealed. The state won't release the number of pardons because of the lawsuit.

The two recently reported pardons came from Bill Janklow, who spent two eight-year stretches in the governor's mansion before leaving for Congress in January. The state had two other governors while Janklow was out of office, from 1987 to 1995.

Janklow signed the bill during his first stint in office, though he said last month that he didn't know about the secrecy provision.

Mark Meierhenry, who was attorney general when it was adopted, said it was meant to let people get their lives back after they had atoned for their mistakes.

The current attorney general, Larry Long, has questioned whether the government has taken the seals too far, and the state prosecutors association has objected as well, saying that, at the least, victims need to know about pending pardons so they can present facts to the governor.

News organizations argue that such secrecy undermines a fundamental tenet of open government.

Most states don't seal pardons, and if they do, the person being pardoned usually has to request it, said Gail Hughes, executive secretary of the Assn. of Paroling Authorities International.

"There are those cases that need public scrutiny because they are a little shady, and I don't know if these are or not. But especially when the record is sealed, it raises the level of suspicion a little higher," Hughes said.

Spurred by the uproar, state lawmakers passed a bill that would allow the names to remain sealed for only five years. Gov. Mike Rounds said he hasn't decided whether he'll sign it.

Janklow, 63, defends the merits of his pardons and says he is fine with lawmakers modifying the seals.

"If they want to make them public, I don't care," said Janklow, who is known for his take-charge, get-the-job-done style.

Janklow says he doesn't know how many pardons he issued. He simply considered them as they came across his desk, he says.

The pardon allowed Means, an old friend of Janklow's, to pursue a career in politics.

"It seals my records, so I don't even have to admit I have ever been in prison or committed a felony," he said at the time.

Janklow said the decision to grant the pardon wasn't tough.

"People who did a lot more than he did have had their records cleared over the years," he said.

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