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Hoeven pardons infrequent: Governor has granted only 5

When it comes to granting pardons, Gov. John Hoeven has played it safe during his 3 1/2 -year tenure in North Dakota's highest office. The first-term Republican has granted pardons to five people, all of them non-inmates. The list includes a comm...


When it comes to granting pardons, Gov. John Hoeven has played it safe during his 3½-year tenure in North Dakota's highest office.

The first-term Republican has granted pardons to five people, all of them non-inmates.

The list includes a commercial airline pilot, an Air Force serviceman, a professional recruiter, a retired Wisconsin man and a special agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Two other pardon requests are pending.

Hoeven's short stack of pardons and a similar-size list of crimes cleared by his predecessor, Gov. Ed Schafer, are dwarfed by the pile of pardons issued by their counterparts to the south.

Last month, the South Dakota Supreme Court ordered 218 pardons unsealed - 214 of which were issued by former Gov. Bill Janklow, including one for his son-in-law. Current South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds recently issued 15 pardons after his first year in office.


Despite mounting pressure to release inmates and relieve prison overcrowding, Hoeven has exercised his pardoning power lightly, said Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who sits on the state's Pardon Advisory Board.

"I do know that he's very careful about them," Stenehjem said. "He does actually spend time considering them on a case-by-case basis."

Public safety is No. 1

Pardons often reflect a governor's ideology, said Tom McDonald, a political science professor at North Dakota State University.

Hoeven said there must be a "clear and compelling" reason for him to grant a pardon. Among the five he's issued, the requests have come from people who have good track records or want to advance their careers, he said.

"If it involves public safety, then I take a very conservative approach," he said.

That was the case when he denied a pardon for Daniel J. Clark of Dickinson, he said. It marked the first time Hoeven denied a pardon against the advisory board's recommendation.

Clark was charged with murder for shooting George Girodengo on Jan. 17, 1996, after finding him with his wife in their Dickinson home.


A jury found Clark guilty of manslaughter. He received a 15-year prison sentence.

The advisory board recommended Clark be moved to a transition center in Billings, Mont. But Montana authorities were unwilling to supervise him, and that created a public safety concern, Hoeven said.

Pardon requests can put governors in a tough spot politically, as Schafer found out toward the end of his term.

In July 2000, Schafer went against the advisory board's recommendation and pardoned Abbas Abdullahi of Fargo, a Somali refugee who pleaded guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl when he was 18.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service wanted to deport Abdullahi. His lawyer said he would be hunted down and murdered if sent back to Somalia.

In the end, Schafer said he felt Abdullahi had spent more time in prison than his sentence required. He granted the pardon, though he knew it wouldn't be acceptable to the victim's mother.

"It's a no-win deal," he said.

Safety is a governor's primary concern when considering pardons, Schafer said. However, the potential threat to one's political future also plays a role, he said.


"Everybody remembers the Willie Horton ads in the presidential race," he said.

Horton was the first-degree murderer who raped a woman and stabbed her fiancé in 1987 while on a weekend pass from a Massachusetts prison. The furlough was part of a state inmate rehabilitation program supported by then-Gov. Michael Dukakis.

Negative TV ads blasted Dukakis for the incident during his presidential race against George Bush.

Stenehjem said he and Hoeven think carefully about the consequences if a pardoned inmate re-offends.

Hoeven said public safety is still his top concern.

"I believe in a strong approach to law enforcement, and I believe public safety is No. 1," he said. "That is the absolute No. 1 consideration."

Power relatively new

North Dakota governors have only had the exclusive authority to grant pardons since July 1997, after voters approved an amendment to the state constitution that broadened some executive branch powers.


The amendment dissolved the Pardon Board, which had consisted of the governor, attorney general, chief justice of the state Supreme Court and two governor appointees.

In its place, Schafer created the Pardon Advisory Board, made up of the attorney general, two citizen members and two representatives of the state Parole Board appointed by the governor.

"It puts (the responsibility) solely on the governor's desk, but you still get the filter of the recommendations of people who are trained to look at those things," Schafer said.

The advisory board first looks at the seriousness of the crime, said chairman Duane DeKrey of Pettibone. For instance, the chances of a convicted murderer or sex offender receiving a pardon are "slim to none," he said.

Board members also consider the offender's age at the time of the crime, their behavior while in prison and whether they received any treatment.

"I guess it all boils down to public safety," DeKrey said. "What are the chances that this guy will re-offend?"

Offenders often believe a pardon will clear their criminal record, but that's not the case, DeKrey said. Rather, the pardon is entered on their permanent record, which in some cases is necessary to gain employment.

While the advisory board recommends few pardons, it often supports commutations of sentences, DeKrey said. A commutation allows an inmate to appear before the Parole Board to try to get a sentence reduced.


Conservative record

North Dakota has traditionally been a conservative state when it comes to granting pardons, and that didn't change after 1997, said Schafer, who issued 10 pardons during his final four years in office.

"When I saw the numbers in South Dakota, I said, 'You've got to be kidding me!' ... That was quite a shocker," he said.

One reason for North Dakota's lower pardon numbers may be that South Dakota has traditionally had higher crime rates, said NDSU's McDonald, who served on the state Parole Board from 1994 to 1997.

Another reason may be the more open pardon process in North Dakota, Hoeven said.

Pardons are public record in North Dakota, regardless of whether they're processed through the advisory board or granted solely by a governor.

In South Dakota, governors were able to seal pardons that didn't go through the pardon board - until May 6, when the Supreme Court ruled the state constitution didn't give them that right.

South Dakota granted 682 pardons from 1983 to 2002, an average of more than 35 per year. Janklow was governor for 16 of those 19 years, from 1978 to 1986 and from 1994 to 2002.


Only 232 of those went through the Board of Pardons and Paroles process; the rest were granted by governors without the board's recommendation.

Rounds has required all pardon requests to go through the board.

Hoeven said he doesn't understand why South Dakota ever allowed pardons to be sealed.

"Ours is an open process, and it should be," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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