Update: This story was corrected and updated after it was first published online to clarify that Desmond Meade does have the right to vote but was seeking a full pardon and restoration of all of his civil rights.
TALLAHASSEE — A state panel on Wednesday denied a request to grant a full pardon to Desmond Meade, the man who led the historic push to restore Florida’s felon voting rights under Amendment 4.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the state Board of Executive Clemency, which is made up of the governor and members of the Cabinet, would take Meade’s request “under advisement.” The governor said he did not know how long that would take, when Meade asked for a timeline.
Meade told the board he was seeking a full pardon to restore all his civil rights — such as the rights to serve on a jury and possess a firearm — because he wanted to be made “whole” again.
The 53-year-old, however, had his right to vote restored after the November 2018 passage of Amendment 4, an initiative he championed that restored the voting rights to former felons who completed their sentences, except in cases of murder or felony sexual assault.
“Because of Amendment 4, I can still vote even though they have not granted me a pardon and even though they have not restored my civil rights,” Meade said in a video posted on Twitter.
Meade’s criminal past, however, still bars him from having all his rights restored. DeSantis and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis said they were concerned about his past criminal convictions, including domestic violence against his ex-wife and a court-martial for grand larceny that resulted in a dishonorable discharge from the Army.
DeSantis, a former Navy prosecutor, suggested Meade should clear up the military conviction before seeking a full pardon from the state because it is “every bit as criminal as a federal offense.” But Meade said his focus was on Florida, where he said he wants to continue the civil rights movement and do “God’s work.”
“I thought that by fighting for my state and committing my life to be here and make every Floridian’s life better, that that’s the first place that I go to,” Meade told the governor. “And once the state makes me whole, then I could worry about the federal government.”
Meade’s criminal history stemmed from a years-long cocaine addiction, which he has recovered from, he told the governor and Cabinet members.
His criminal history started in 1994 with a third-degree felony for cocaine possession. Two years later, he faced a felony domestic violence charge, court records show. Charges linked to marijuana possession, resisting arrest and carrying a concealed weapon also stained his criminal record through 2001, records show.
Meade pleaded with the governor to grant the request to the person he is now and not “the one from 20 years ago who was caught up in a drug addiction.”
Patronis, however, said he was concerned about “domestic violence” in his background, saying that he would need to hear from his ex-wife personally on whether she had forgiven him over it.
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“Domestic violence is deadly serious,” Patronis said. “I don’t know if you’re applying for a firearm permit, but I got a real problem giving you a gun … I just can’t, I can’t go there. I can’t get there yet.”
The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office initially objected to Meade’s pardon but later withdrew the objection. The office, which prosecuted some of Meade’s cases, said its files were so old that they have long since been destroyed and no victims could be located.
In a letter to the commission sent Monday by State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, the office praised Meade’s turnaround and work helping to pass Amendment 4. It cited his “exemplary life” over the past 20 years.
“Based on the foregoing, it is our considered opinion that Mr. Meade has turned his life around; impacted our community, state, and nation in a truly significant and unique way; and bettered the lives of countless people,” the letter said.
To restore the civil rights of convicted felons under the clemency process, the governor and two Cabinet members need to agree. The governor also has the sole power to deny clemency.
In Meade’s case, Democrat Nikki Fried, the commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, was the only member who supported his request for a full pardon. DeSantis and Patronis said they wanted to take it under advisement. Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody did not comment during the hearing of his case.
House Minority Leader Kionne McGhee, who is friends with Meade and Patronis, said he was disappointed that Meade was not granted the full pardon on Wednesday but viewed it as “justice delayed.”
“However, justice delayed is not justice denied,” the Cutler Bay Democrat said. “I believe that in the near future the clemency board will make the right decision and get him back in the system.”
But Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, was more cynical and said he believes delaying Meade’s full pardon was a “punishment” over Amendment 4.
“If Desmond Meade has proven anything, it is that there is a movement behind him. He knows how to organize. He knows how to put things on the ballot,” Braynon said. “So to basically spit on the man’s face, I think the CFO and the governor are playing with fire. They really are.”
Amendment 4 was approved by nearly two-thirds of Florida voters in November 2018. The initiative, which broadly restores the rights to former felons who completed their sentences, is arguably the most high-profile voting rights action in the nation in many years.
“I think that today’s clemency hearing and the governor and this Cabinet’s refusal to immediately grant me a pardon, I think that is so indicative of why we started Amendment 4 in the first place,” Meade said Wednesday.
The initiative has since been tangled up in court battles. The legal wrangling began after Florida legislators last year approved a law requiring felons to pay “legal financial obligations” — fees, fines, costs and restitution — associated with their convictions to be eligible to vote.
Howard Simon, the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida and one of three people who helped Meade write Amendment 4, said the measure gets rid of the “ugly process” Meade and other felons have had to go through to get their civil rights restored.
“It is also a perfect example, I have to say, of the pettiness of the governor,” Simon said. “One magnanimous gesture toward the person who led a movement that changed Florida civil rights history was apparently a bridge too far.”
Since DeSantis took office in January 2019, the state clemency board has met six times. Wednesday was the second time since January that the governor and Cabinet members met.
In the time period that DeSantis has been governor, 30 felons have had their civil rights restored as part of the state’s clemency process, according to Fried’s office. The board granted six of those cases on Wednesday.
“It’s an absolute mockery that in nearly two years under Governor DeSantis, only 30 Floridians have earned back their rights, compared to 234,000 under his three predecessors,” Fried said in a statement after the meeting
Under Florida law, there are certain people who are eligible to get their civil rights restored without a clemency hearing. As of Wednesday, 853 people fell into that category, Fried’s spokesman Max Flugrath said.
Miami Herald reporter David Ovalle contributed to this report.
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