There are some things you can’t learn in books.

That thought came to me several times as I sat through 18 cases before the Governor’s Board of Executive Clemency on a recent Thursday.

If I were a teacher, I’d take my class on a field trip to the board hearings, held on the third floor of the Tyson Building in the Maine Department of Corrections complex in Augusta.

I’d guarantee students that if they spent a day here, they’d never want to commit a felony.

Most of those testifying had committed felonies and were asking the board to recommend that the governor pardon their convictions. Four times a year, the panel listens to felons’ requests, and in some cases, testimony from their friends, family members and employers.

The governor makes final decisions about whether to pardon and has the option of making no decision at all. If he decides to pardon, a conviction is still on a felon’s record, but it would include an annotation that it had been pardoned by the governor of the state of Maine.

Some who spoke committed crimes many years ago; some were more recent. Most said they have had difficulty getting jobs that pay well because of their felony convictions. Some said they could not coach their children’s sports teams or volunteer for recreation departments or 4-H-type clubs because felons are prohibited from doing so.

Hindsight is 20-20 — and these felons know that lesson painfully well.

They stood before the lectern, one by one, to pitch their requests.

Eric, who now has a wife and children, said when he was 18 he committed burglary and theft by entering a home and stealing an empty wallet, a cigarette lighter, a knife and other items while on a job sealing and coating driveways. A troubled teenager, he had just turned 18 and was hired by a man who was part of a gang, he said. The house where they were working was unlocked and his boss told him to go inside and steal stuff, but when Eric came out, his boss was disappointed with what he’d stolen and told him to return and look for checks and money.

Eric said he was not going back in, so the boss sent someone else. When police got involved in the case, Eric was scared and told them everything, he said.

“I had a very large feeling of guilt. I owned up to everything.”

Still, he served jail time, and the crime has followed him all his life. He has not applied for government jobs, knowing the felony would stand in the way.

“My jobs have been pretty low-paying jobs,” he said.

A friend told him about a position at an Air Force base in Massachusetts, so he applied and worked there three months, but every month he had to apply for a “temporary paper badge,” he said. On the fourth month, he decided to apply for a permanent one, but what happened next shook him to his core.

“I was there two hours. They came out and said you have a conviction from 2000 and you can’t be here anymore. They put handcuffs on me and put me in a military police vehicle and escorted me to the exit. It was very embarrassing. I hadn’t got in trouble for a long time.”

He now has a full-time job painting tennis courts and basketball courts, but it is only seasonal.

“I’d just really like to get that cleared up so I can continue to provide for my family, my two kids and wife,” he told the board. “I think getting this off my record would help a lot.”

Board Chairwoman Pamela Ames told the felons that they must describe the “extraordinary circumstances” that brought them to the board. In some instances, that meant showing they had applied for several jobs but were denied.

A woman named Denise testified by phone from her home in Florida. The panel, made up of lawyers, listened to her via ceiling speakers.

She was convicted of robbery in 1985. She had grown up without a father and when she was 15, she lost her best friend in a drunken-driving accident, she said. She tried to convince her friend not to drive that night, but to no avail. Afterward, she struggled with grief and survivor’s guilt.

She turned to alcohol and other substances to numb the pain. She got pregnant. She hung out with the wrong people. Her boyfriend suggested one day that she and her friend go Christmas shopping with him. They drove around and he and her friend went into a store and robbed it at gunpoint, though Denise says she did not know he had a gun or planned to rob the store. Later, police brought them all in for questioning. Denise’s appointed lawyer suggested she take a plea deal and she accepted, but she wishes she hadn’t. She spent six months in jail, which she said was a turning point in her life as she got off drugs and alcohol and learned how heartbreaking it was to be away from her 3-year-old child.

She eventually married, had a child, got her bachelor’s degree and has spoken to students about the dangers of drinking, drinking and driving and doing drugs. She eventually got a job, but it took several years, as felons are required to report their crimes.

Laws are more restrictive in Florida than in Maine, she said. She is prohibited from voting there because she is a convicted felon, though she wants to vote, as she feels people have given their lives for her to have that right.

“I’ve turned my life around. I’d like to be able to contribute and help make decisions by voting.”

Denise is a member of a church and wants to be able to volunteer in a children’s program, but is prohibited from doing so.

“I have to have a background check and I’ll not pass it,” she said.

She has worked in special education many years, but when she first moved to Florida, she had to go through an exemption process, which took many months, she said. She now works as a disability coordinator for Head Start.

“I applied to a local school district for more money. I did an online application and was automatically denied, and I knew it was the felony conviction.”

The articulate, well-spoken woman said she has suffered her share of embarrassment because of her record.

“Many of the nicer condos do not rent to people with convictions. I got one because I knew a lady who lived there and she spoke for me.”

An older, balding, bespectacled man named Greg approached the board. He said he is a former lobsterman who kept losing traps every year or two and they cost $100 each to replace. He said he knew who was stealing them, lost his temper one night, went home, got his shotgun, headed to the water’s edge and fired the gun in the direction of the suspected thief — just to scare him.

“If you touch ’em again I’ll blow your feet off,” he is quoted in the police report as declaring at the time.

Greg went to jail. When he got out, he started working in the seaweed harvesting industry and joined a church, members of which spoke on his behalf, saying he was a changed man who was remorseful for what he had done.

The stories continued from these felons, who did not look like criminals and seemed earnest in their pitches for pardons. Some had been there before, but their requests were denied and they had to wait a year before reapplying.

Ames told them early on that it was an informal process. She said she knew they were not public speakers and recommended they just do the best they could and be honest. Merely saying they did not want to be a felon anymore was not an acceptable reason for pardon, she said.

The atmosphere was not as formal as that of a courtroom, but pretty close. Corrections officers stood by and the door to the conference room area was locked from the outside.

It’s not a place a person wants to have to go to seek clemency for a felony conviction, years after having the option of choosing to commit or not commit a crime.

And I’m thinking young people are pretty smart, and after spending a day there watching and listening, they’d exit that room, vowing never to return.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 30 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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