A decade ago, Leslie Collier, a 50-year-old corn and soybean farmer in Charleston, Mo., pleaded guilty to poisoning bald eagles. He says the worst thing about his criminal record was that it meant he was barred by law from owning a gun.
So, after George W. Bush, a strong defender of the Second Amendment, took office, Mr. Collier wrote to the president seeking a pardon, saying he wanted to go hunting with his kids. He explained that he accidentally killed the eagles while trying to poison coyotes that were attacking wild turkeys and deer on property he farms.
On the surface, the list of the 14 people pardoned by the president this week shows few common denominators in terms of time served, geographic location or even type of crime, except that the felonies were non-violent. But a closer look at some of the newly pardoned shows many of them are church-going, blue-collar workers from rural areas (and ardent Bush supporters) who had little trouble fi! nding jobs after their convictions. There is another common thread: the important role firearms once played in their lives.
President Bush has pardoned fewer people - 171 - than any president since World War II, with the exception of his father, who pardoned 74. Presidents don't discuss their reasons for issuing pardons, with few exceptions. Nor do they tell petitioners why their wish was granted. The Justice Department's "pardon attorney," who reviews hundreds of petitions a year and recommends candidates to the president, had no comment.
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Coincidentally or not, at least seven of the 14 pardoned on Monday are former hunters or shooting enthusiasts. In interviews, five of them said they wrote in their petitions to the government that a desire to win back the right to bear arms was a chief reason for wanting a pardon.
Robert Mohon Jr. of Grant, Ala., who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute marijuana and served a year in prison in the late 1980s, wrote! in his petition that he was concerned about his heritage. He wanted t o pass down his father's hunting rifles to his grandchildren and teach them "the enjoyment of the outdoors." His felony record was standing in the way.
"That's what's wrong with the world today - nobody knows how to handle guns," says the 61-year-old retiree.
The state of Illinois allowed Richard Culpepper to keep his shotguns after he was convicted in 1987 of lying to the government in order to receive unemployment checks. But in 2002, when he bought an English Pointer hunting dog and tried to buy a new gun, he says he was rejected and the state revoked his privilege.
So, the 52-year-old retired locomotive engineer from Mahomet, Ill., says he applied for a pardon by explaining the situation and attaching photos of Cartman, the dog.
Another pardon recipient from Monday is Danny Pue, 64, of Conroe, Texas, who pleaded guilty to illegal storage of hazardous waste and got six months' home confinement in 1996. He wrote in his petition that he was an avid s! port shooter and wanted to enjoy weekly target practice with his family again. "We live in the country and I felt secure with my firearms," says the machine-shop employee.
Convicted felons lose a host of civil rights, including the right to vote, seek political office or bear arms. A presidential pardon forgives federal crimes and restores basic rights.
Many felons can win back some rights from their states after they complete their punishment. But the right to possess guns can be restored only by the president, says Margaret Love, a former pardon attorney under the first President Bush and the first term of President Clinton, who pardoned 396, mostly during his second term. (Felons are allowed to possess certain antique guns, she says.)
Before applying for a pardon, an individual must wait five years after serving prison time or home confinement and must have finished probation or supervised release. The president can exercise his or her clemency powers a! t any time, even if the felon hasn't formally applied.
Petitione rs must show they've led an upstanding life since their conviction and accepted responsibility for their actions with remorse, according to the Justice Department.
The whole process can take years, and the odds are long. Through the end of October, President Bush had pardoned 7 percent of applicants during his term, department statistics show. There is a backlog of several thousand applications.
President Bush still has more than 50 days left in his term, and December is his favorite month for granting clemency, says P.S. Ruckman, Jr., a political science professor at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill., who tracks presidential pardons.
The White House declined to address whether President Bush was trying to aid people who sought to restore their gun rights. "The president carefully considered recommendations for pardons and commutations on a case-by-case basis and made his determination. He will continue to review clemency requests," a spokesman said.
In a pardon petition, the applicant must explain the criminal offense, give employment and residence history and other biographical information, and the reasons for seeking pardon. If the petition succeeds, an official in the pardon attorney's office calls the pardon recipient by phone to convey the good news.
According to the Justice Department, if a case looks promising, the pardon attorney often asks the FBI to conduct a background investigation. Bureau agents collect information by interviewing the applicants and their friends, neighbors and sometimes former teachers and coaches, and assess their reputations in the community. The pardon attorney and deputy attorney general, the No. 2 official in the Justice Department, give a positive or negative recommendation before an application goes to the White House for the president's consideration.
Most pardons receive scant attention because they involve ordinary citizens with no connection to the president. Ot! hers grab headlines, including President Clinton's controversial pardo n of tax-evasion fugitive Marc Rich, whose wife donated money to Mr. Clinton's presidential library.
So far, President Bush's pardons have been low-risk politically. The pardonees were one-time offenders who got very little or no prison time for crimes that occurred long ago. That includes 47-year-old Brenda Helmer, who says she "discovered" guns when she dated a police officer at age 18. "Ever since then I was hooked," she says.
Mrs. Helmer, who helps run her husband's dentistry practice, says she occasionally hunted doves but mostly kept her hobby to target shooting. She lost her gun rights after her conviction in 1998 for having knowledge of a felony fraud and not reporting it to authorities.
In 2004, she wrote in her pardon petition that she was worried the felony might cause delays when she traveled to do missionary work. She also wrote that she was a life member of the National Rifle Association who wanted her gun rights back.
When the Fort Worth resident received the fateful call from the Justice Department, she "couldn't talk, or breathe," and spent a few moments regrouping before informing her husband, who was by her side. "Prayer works," she says.
As for Mr. Collier, the Missouri farmer, he picked up one of his old rifles from his parents' house a few hours after receiving the news and went into the forest with his 22-year-old son. It was the last day of deer season.