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Dispensing tough love at the Clemency Board

For the first time as governor, Rick Scott sat in judgment of his fellow man Thursday.

Scott chairs the Board of Executive Clemency, which meets four times a year and decides whether to grant pardons or to restore felons' civil rights.

Scott and his fellow board members — Attorney General Pam Bondi, CFO Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — had never undertaken this task, facing people who beg the state to forgive them for past transgressions.

In clemency cases, the governor's vote is more powerful than any of the others. He must be on the prevailing side in all votes, meaning he alone can deny a request.

Time and again Thursday, the panel rejected petitions for clemency, even in cases where the Florida Parole Commission staff recommended approval.

They asked tough questions and dispensed tough love. The prevailing mind-set of former Gov. Charlie Crist that everybody deserves a second chance was nowhere in sight.

John Arnold felt the sting first.

Arnold, 41, committed burglary and theft in 1991 and got two years' probation.

A 1987 Gibbs High graduate, Arnold got his civil rights back but wanted a pardon, too, so he can become a police officer in North Carolina, where he lives.

His pastor, from Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Archdale, N.C., spoke of Arnold's devotion to God and family, and vouched for his integrity.

"God has pardoned him, and I would thank you so very much if you would do the same," the Rev. Richard Callahan testified.

But Bondi was bothered by the fact that in the 1990s, two of Arnold's former wives sought domestic violence injunctions against him. Arnold said neither complaint was warranted, but he came across as unconvincing.

Bondi, a former Tampa prosecutor, then flagged an old statement by Arnold in which he said he felt "manipulated by prosecutors," and in that moment, it seemed that Arnold had lost Bondi's support.

Scott asked: "So, you're asking for a full pardon so you can be a law enforcement officer? How do we get comfortable with that if you've been accused of domestic violence?"

"It's a hard mountain to climb," Arnold told the governor. "All I can say is that over the past 20 years, I've not been in any trouble. Honestly, I'm not a violent person."

Scott listened closely and said: "I'm going to deny the pardon. Thank you very much."

It was a statement Scott would make repeatedly over the next 21/2 hours.

With his pastor by his side, Arnold walked out, sat in a chair and buried his face in his hands.

"Whatever happened to 'innocent till proven guilty?' " Arnold asked.

Oscar Hernandez of Miami, Case No. 10, fared no better.

The 40-year-old former cabdriver, married with two children, got a seven-year prison sentence in 1993 for attempted second-degree murder. He shot at two men who tried to drag him from his car.

Hernandez said he wants to be a cabbie again, but Miami officials won't give him a license until he is pardoned.

"The reason for a pardon for me is to provide for my family," he said, crying.

Bondi expressed shock at the violence committed by Hernandez. Scott said: "I deny."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Dispensing tough love at the Clemency Board 02/25/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 25, 2011 8:03pm]
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