published Monday, April 1st, 2013

Presidential Pardon: How a 'no-account bum' found forgiveness after 52 years

Roy Grimes, left, gets a first look at the actual presidential pardon in his attorney Patrick Noel's office on March 15, 2013. Grimes, 72, a retired TVA engineer, who lives in Athens, did 18 months probation after being convicted of altering a $40 money order back in 1960. This presidential pardon was one of only 17 this go around across the country, including only three Tennesseans.
Roy Grimes, left, gets a first look at the actual presidential pardon in his attorney Patrick Noel's office on March 15, 2013. Grimes, 72, a retired TVA engineer, who lives in Athens, did 18 months probation after being convicted of altering a $40 money order back in 1960. This presidential pardon was one of only 17 this go around across the country, including only three Tennesseans.
Photo by The Knoxville News Sentinel /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Presidential Pardons:

Barack Obama: 39 pardons granted; 1,333 pardons denied

George W. Bush: 189 pardons granted; 1,729 pardons denied

Bill Clinton: 396 pardons granted; 655 pardons denied

George H.W. Bush: 74 pardons granted; 676 pardons denied

Ronald Reagan: 393 pardons granted; 969 pardons denied

Jimmy Carter: 534 pardons granted; 638 pardons denied

Executive Grant of Clemency
Executive Grant of Clemency

As far as crimes are concerned, Roy Grimes' sin seemed pretty light.

About five months earlier, he and a buddy walked into the East Ridge post office and deposited a money order. It was supposed to be for Sun Finance, but one of them erased the name.

Then they walked away with the money: $40.83.

Now, on Dec. 10, 1960, Grimes returned to the post office. He heard that officials wanted to see him. A postal inspector learned that the order had been changed, and he figured out who took the cash.

Fifty-two years later, Grimes doesn't know why he did it. He can't recall how he got the money order, or why he even thought they would get away with the quick cash. He remembers they split the money. But he doesn't remember how the 20-year-old version of himself spent it.

"We would have probably squandered it on candy or something," he said.

"You probably spent it on gas, more than likely," said Frances, his wife of 52 years.

Roy married Frances a year after the crime. He spent the 1960s working by day and taking classes at night, first at a trade school, then at the University of Chattanooga and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He's been a mechanical engineer for 42 years, a father and a grandpa.

He hasn't been in trouble with the law in half a century, and if he doesn't pick up his phone, the voicemail ends, "And remember: When you call Jesus, you won't get an answering machine."

But since pleading guilty to two counts of altering a postal order and getting 18 months' probation, Grimes has been a man stripped of his civil liberties. Like most convicted felons, he's never been able to own guns. For years, he's wanted a single-action Colt peacemaker, the type cowboys like Clint Eastwood and Chuck Connors drew from their holsters in Grimes' favorite TV Westerns.

On March 1, however, he got a phone call from his attorney. After 52 years, the U.S. government had forgiven him. Grimes was one of 17 people pardoned that morning by President Barack Obama.

Grimes was happy, of course, but he couldn't get his head around it. He submitted his application in August 2010, and in the 2-1/2 years since, he had heard almost nothing from the Office of the Pardon Attorney. A member of the FBI came to interview him and Frances once, and U.S. Rep. John Duncan wrote a letter of support.

But other than that, nothing.

Every time Grimes called the pardon attorney to ask where his application sat, they could only say it lay in purgatory -- not declined, but not accepted.

Then, Obama pardoned him. What happened?

"We have no idea," said Patrick Noel, Grimes' attorney. "It would be interesting to see. I don't know if we can even find out."

Compared to others, Grimes is actually lucky. Lynn Stanek, of Tualatin, Ore., applied for a pardon in 1998. She didn't hear back until 15 years and two presidents later. And then there are the waves of rejections. Obama has only pardoned about 2 percent of applicants, the lowest rate of any modern president.

Pardons aren't about cleaning the slate; your criminal record doesn't just go away with a president's signature. Pardons are about recognizing the mistakes of youth and acknowledging an effort to try harder, to be better. Pardons are about forgiveness.

And of all presidents since the beginning of the 20th century, nobody has been less forgiving than Obama. Including the 17 in March, he has pardoned 39 people -- less than one per month.

"He's just the end of a downward trend," said Paul Rosenzweig, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation who has pushed for a change in the clemency system.

Since the Reagan administration, no president has issued more than five pardons per month. Commutations have been even more rare. In the last 33 years, presidents have shortened the sentences of only 89 inmates. That's less than 1 percent of applicants.

Of the 6,986 inmates who have applied to Obama, according to the Department of Justice website, he has granted it once.

"A society that has lost capacity for forgiveness is in bad shape," said Margaret Love, the pardon attorney from 1990 to 1997. "We seem to have done that."

This isn't how it used to be. Pardons used to be common housekeeping, said Love, a "true, blue liberal with a capital 'L.'" During their times in office, Harry Truman and Franklin Roosevelt pardoned about 20 people per month. Richard Nixon handed out the pardon to more than half the people who applied.

But the numbers have steadily dropped since the early '80s for several reasons, experts say. Pardon recommendations are made through an office in the Department of Justice. A group of prosecutors is critiquing the work of other prosecutors, and as a result presidents aren't getting as many recommendations as they used to, insiders say.

"People were putting other problems in front of this, and nothing got done," a former member of the Obama administration said. "We didn't get many recommendations."

Fifty-two years ago, when he turned himself in, Grimes thought people wouldn't know. He thought it would stay quiet. But the next morning Frances' father -- General Augusta Bailey Jr. -- read about the arrest in the paper. He called Grimes a "hoodlum," a "no-account bum." He told his daughter not to see him again. She didn't care.

The middle child, Frances was a rebel. Around the same time Grimes forged that money order, he and a friend spotted Frances wearing her white "short shorts" walking home from a Fourth Avenue drug store. Grimes volunteered to give her a ride home; she gave him her number.

About a year later, they got married in Georgia with the permission of Grimes' pardon attorney, who allowed him to temporarily leave the eastern district of Tennessee. Soon after, Grimes got rejected for a job as a collector for a local finance company. And 40, 50 years later, he still had to explain his arrest on job applications.

The years have given him wrinkle lines and wisdom, as they always seem to do. Today, Grimes reads the newspaper and skims all the local arrests -- the silly ones, and the sad ones, too. He reads about felons barely old enough to shave.

"It breaks my heart," he said. "I would like to be able to tell them they don't need to do that. It will bother them and follow them their entire life."

Sure, he said, you can change. His father-in-law forgave him, eventually. Most people do.

But will the government?

Contact Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.

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