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NH govs historically stingy in granting pardons

By Norma Love
Associated Press / January 1, 2011

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CONCORD, N.H.—In New Hampshire, it takes unusual circumstances -- and a governor willing to risk political backlash -- to earn the state's forgiveness for committing a crime.

It has been a rare combination over the past quarter century.

New Hampshire governors have considered 379 pardon requests and granted only 11 since 1986, according to research by The Associated Press.

One went to a battered wife who killed her husband while he slept, another to a convicted robber who wanted to travel to Canada to help with prison ministry.

The forgiveness has grown stingier in recent years. Only two of the last five governors -- both Republicans -- have agreed to forgive past crimes with clemency and only to four people. Democratic Gov. John Lynch has not issued any pardons in his six years in office -- and that does not bode well for Ward Bird, a Moultonborough man who is the latest to make a plea for his sentence to be commuted.

Republican Gov. Steve Merrill believed convicted murderer June Briand had turned her life around and granted her a conditional pardon in 1997, shortening her prison term by four years. Briand was a battered wife who killed her husband while he slept. She planned to volunteer at a battered women's shelter if released.

Merrill also approved convicted robber Carl Spitale's pardon so he could travel to Canada to help with a prison ministry.

Republican Gov. Craig Benson agreed to pardon Keith McNeil, a National Guardsman who couldn't deploy with his unit to serve in the Iraq war in 2003 because an old domestic violence conviction prevented him from possessing a gun. Benson also pardoned Brian Korpi who had been convicted of hindering prosecution in a stolen property case sought. He wanted to get his hunting license back.

People seeking pardons weren't so lucky during Republican Gov. Judd Gregg's four years as chief executive. He granted none -- nor did Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen during her six years.

So far, pardon seekers have struck out with Lynch, too, who is entering his seventh year.

Shaheen was asked to pardon another battered wife convicted of murder, but refused. But in another battered wife case, Republican Gov. John Sununu, like Merrill, believed convicted murderer Kathy Kaplan had turned her life around and granted her a conditional pardon in 1988. Kaplan was convicted of hiring a man to kill her abusive husband.

In all, Sununu pardoned 17 people during his six years in office from 1983 to 1989.

"There is no upside politically for doing pardons. Governors are often concerned about the risk," Sununu said last month. "If there's a reason, I was willing to take the risk of evaluating each pardon application."

A New Hampshire man convicted of using a gun to threaten a woman who trespassed on his property need only to look at the state's history of forgiveness to judge his odds of getting a pardon. Bird, 49, hopes to convince Lynch that he's a victim, not a criminal to win his freedom.

Bird's case could come before the new Executive Council and Lynch this month. Bird received a mandatory sentence of to three to six years in prison for criminal threatening after losing an appeal to the state Supreme Court. He was convicted of threatening a woman with a gun in 2006 when she arrived on his property seeking directions after getting lost. The prosecutor said the woman was unarmed, had no intention of harming him and Bird had been warned she was in the area.

His supporters say Bird didn't threaten the woman, who they claim ignored "no trespassing" signs on the property and refused to leave when asked. They have since formed a Free Ward Bird group to lobby for his release. The group has held rallies and created a website, freewardbird.org, to serve as a bulletin board to advertise events and ask people to write letters to Lynch and Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn.

Republican House Speaker William O'Brien and 117 House members signed a petition asking Lynch to grant Bird clemency.

"We believe he acted absolutely totally within the boundaries of the law," said his attorney, Mark Sisti. "We believe he used non-deadly force to repel a criminal trespasser. She was committing a crime by being on his property."

Bird's chances of winning release could come down to Lynch.

Executive Councilors Ray Burton, a 32-year council veteran, says the governor's attitude is the deciding factor in whether the council holds pardon hearings and votes on them.

"Gov. Gregg arrived and said he did not care if we got five votes, he would negate it, same with Shaheen," said Burton.

Shaheen, now a U.S. senator, said she did not have a blanket policy against pardons, but was never presented with one she thought was worthy.

Lynch has not been receptive to requests, either. The most recent request was withdrawn by a woman convicted of drunken driving who wanted to try to restore her driving privileges sooner than the law allows. Another application to pardon a man guilty of not reporting an accident was denied last year.

"I believe strongly that pardons should not be used as a substitute for the court system. Pardons should be reserved for extraordinary circumstances or where there is a real miscarriage of justice," Lynch said in a statement to the AP.

Reluctance by governors to approve pardons has not stopped a steady flow of applicants over the years.

Audrey Blodget, a paralegal with the attorney general's office, is in charge of preparing applicants' files for the governor and council. Her office seeks comment from the prosecutor, sentencing judge and the prison superintendent if the person is incarcerated. The criminal record also is attached. The prosecuting attorney is asked to contact the victim if there is one.

The process generally takes several weeks. People can only apply once during a council's two-year term.

Burton attributes the small number in recent years to the public's belief lawbreakers should pay the penalty.

"People's attitude toward crime has taken on a whole new philosophy, a whole new look," he said.

Burton said he receives pleas almost daily to support Bird's pardon.

"If and when it gets (to the council), I will give it every consideration," he said.

Lynch spokesman Colin Manning simply said Bird's request will be reviewed.