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Fugitive mom, pro-golfer, ‘Godfather of Soul’ caught nation’s eye in SC pardon cases

A history of pardons in South Carolina

South Carolina grants 64 percent of pardon requests. See what crimes are most and least likely to be pardoned as well as the state's most famous cases.
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South Carolina grants 64 percent of pardon requests. See what crimes are most and least likely to be pardoned as well as the state's most famous cases.

Her name was Pamela Rodgers. Then it was Kay Smith.

A convicted gun-toting robber, she walked off a prison work-release site in Columbia in 1978 — not yet three years into her 12-year prison sentence. She hitched a ride north where she built a new life as a wife, mother and successful real estate agent.

Smith’s luck ran out a decade later, tracked down by police and returned to a S.C. prison cell. Her case caught national attention, highlighting how difficult — perhaps, impossible — it is for a South Carolina inmate to get a pardon, the state’s way of forgiving a crime by ending parole and any other legal consequence of a conviction.

Smith is among several high-profile names that have sought pardons from the state’s Board of Paroles and Pardons over the years.

Pro-golfer Dustin Johnson, “Godfather of Soul” James Brown, civil rights leader Cleveland Sellers and televangelist Leroy Jenkins also have sought the state’s forgiveness. So did nationally syndicated radio host Tom Joyner, who won a pardon for his great uncles, executed for a murder many believe they did not commit.

There’s little controversy over the state’s generosity in granting pardons. Many state officials contacted by The State view it as good public policy.

But some lawmakers and advocates for ex-offenders say the state should do more to help former convicts, arguing the state should grant expungements when someone receives a pardon, hiding sometimes serious offenses from public view.

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Kay Smith in a file photo from Dec. 16, 1989. The State

Is it a good idea? Here’s a look back on how the state’s most high-profile convicts fared after receiving pardons.

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A fugitive captured

Smith said drug and alcohol abuse led her into criminal activity, which included charges for public drunkenness in Greenville, illegal possession of amphetamines and robbing at least five Greenville businesses in 1974 and 1975, including a liquor store, with an accomplice.

On the run, Smith turned her life around, earning a high school diploma, meeting her future husband while she waited tables at a truck stop, overcoming her drug and alcohol problems, and launching a real estate career, The State newspaper has previously reported.

She had just reached $1 million dollars in real estate sales, when federal authorities arrested her at her Maryland home in 1988. Her ex-husband, in prison after being convicted of shooting an acquaintance, hacking the body to pieces and disposing of them, revealed to authorities where Smith was living with their two sons.

Smith was brought back to Columbia to serve out her sentence plus a year for her escape, but was granted permission to move to a Maryland prison.

In May 1989, Smith requested a pardon from the state board that grants them. State law allows inmates to request pardons, but to be eligible, they must demonstrate “extraordinary circumstances.” How extraordinary is up to interpretation.

Her attorney, Columbia’s Dick Harpootlian, said at the time, “If not Kay Smith, then who?”

But the board disagreed, denying Smith’s request for a pardon.

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South Carolina grants pardons liberally. The state has granted about 400 a year during the last decade — all to applicants who have completed their prison sentences. None has been granted to inmates like Kay Smith, although a provision in state law that allows pardons for incarcerated people under extraordinary circumstances.

But her imprisonment was short-lived. Smith was granted parole in December of 1989, just months after her pardon was denied.

“I’m going to go home and hug my family really hard,” she said after her parole was granted. “I’m going to cook them a huge lasagna.”

The State was unsuccessful in reaching Smith, after making several attempts to call and email a Kay Smith, who is practicing real estate in Maryland and matches the description found in public records.

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In this file photo from Dec. 14, 1989, Kay Smith appears at her parole hearing. At her left is her attorney from Maryland, John Hassett. To her right is Columbia lawyer, Dick Harpootlian. Her family -- sons James and Danny and husband Ray Smith -- are on the far right. Maxie Smith The State

Dustin Johnson

Now an elite pro golfer, Irmo native Dustin Johnson once found himself asking forgiveness from the state.

In 2001, Johnson, a former Dutch Fork High School standout, was part of a group of teens who, at the direction of his friend’s older brother, stole a gun and other items from a home. Johnson said he did not go inside the home, but he pawned stolen items at a pawn shop, the Myrtle Beach Sun News reported.

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Dustin Johnson tees off on No. 17 during the first round of the 2018 RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing at Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island. Jay Karr The Island Packet

The older brother later used the stolen firearm to kill someone after a fight at a party. The investigation led to Johnson’s arrest. He testified at the trial and paid restitution for the stolen goods. Later, he was pardoned.

“I sat down with myself afterward, looked in the mirror and realized, ‘This is not who I am, not what I want to be,’” Johnson told Golf.com in 2011. “I wanted to go to college. I wanted to play golf. It was an easy decision, getting back on the right path. I didn’t want to throw all this good stuff away.”

In the years since his pardon, Johnson’s golf career also has been dogged by questions about his behavior, including a 2009 drunken driving charge in Myrtle Beach, later dismissed when he pleaded guilty to reckless driving.

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Cleveland Sellers

The civil rights leader, active in the nonviolent movement protesting discrimination across the South, was the only person convicted when students protested an all-white bowling ally near S.C. State University in Orangeburg in 1968.

S.C. state troopers opened fire on the crowd, killing three and wounding 27 others. The incident became known as the Orangeburg Massacre.

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National Guard troops at a roadblock in Orangeburg, the night after the Orangeburg Massacre. Provided photo/USC South Caroliniana Library

Branded an “outside agitator” by law enforcement, Sellers was shot during the incident and was the only person arrested. He was tried and convicted of inciting a riot and spent seven months in prison, where he wrote an autobiography. The troopers were acquitted on federal civil rights charges.

After his sentence, the Denmark, S.C., native continued his work as an activist and went back to school, eventually getting a doctorate, and dedicating his life to education and writing.

However, Sellers faced challenges in securing employment along the way, he told The State this week.

“There were always barriers for me in terms of telling the story, gainful employment and that kind of thing. The FBI used to take that form into places where I was seeking work” and would raise concerns in potential employers’ minds that “maybe I don’t want him on my campus.”

Sellers also said he was charged with other “trumped up” crimes for which he wasn’t convicted. He never sought an expungement of his record, he said, because he wanted it to be part of his legacy — a testament to the wrongdoing by authorities and protectors of the Jim Crow status quo that created obstacles for him and other activists fighting discrimination.

“I wear it as a badge of honor,” he said. “We understand this prison industrial complex and all these African-Americans who go off to prison for nothing. It just wrecks their lives, and they can never change those dynamics.”

“I needed to leave that on there for historians and young people to know,” he said.

Sellers went on to direct the African-American studies program at the University of South Carolina in 1993, the year he was granted the pardon, and in 2008 was named president of Voorhees College in his hometown. He stepped down as president in 2015.

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Civil rights activist Cleveland Sellers is emotional as he recalls details of the Orangeburg Massacre inside Trinity United Methodist Church. Gerry Melendez gmelendez@thestate.com

When Sellers was pardoned in 1993 — 25 years after his conviction — he said, “What this means is that maybe some people are willing to look back with a different slant.”

Sellers said his pardon was not an exoneration or a recognition by the state that he did not commit the crime for which he was convicted. But it did help him put pressure on the state to acknowledge and investigate its role in the massacre.

A decade later in 2003, then S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford apologized for the trooper’s actions; however, South Carolina, to this day, has refused to investigate despite requests to do so.

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Cleveland Sellers talked about his Orangeburg Massacre experience and more in a Nov. 14, 2007 interview. Associated Press

James Brown

The “Godfather of Soul” might be South Carolina’s most famous recipient of a pardon.

In 2003, Barnwell native James Brown was granted pardons for seven convictions on weapons, drugs, assault and resisting arrest tied to three incidents in 1988 and 1998.

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Soul singer, James Brown, received a pardon for seven charges filed against him in Aiken County in 1988 and 1998. TIM DOMINICK The State

In one 1988 incident, Brown was accused of carrying a shotgun into an insurance seminar taking place in the same Augusta building as his office and demanding to know who gave them permission to use his restroom. Later, he led law enforcement on a high-speed chase into North Augusta where, prosecutors said, he tried to run over two officers.

At the time, Brown told the board he was “not proud” of his actions. “I seek a pardon because I owe it, not only to South Carolina but to our country,” he told the board before they voted unanimously to pardon him.

“If you get a pardon today, will it make you feel good?” joked board member J.P. Hodges of Bennettsville before the vote.

“You upstage me,” laughed Brown.

Brown’s pardon request drew opposition from prosecutors, four police officers and even the investigator assigned to review Brown’s pardon case.

“The subject has shown a pattern of committing serious crimes and putting innocent people at risk during his crimes,” senior officer Terence Halupa wrote in his recommendation to deny Brown a pardon.

Brown would soon land in trouble again. In 2004, he was arrested on a domestic violence charge, leading critics to decry Brown’s pardon the previous year as a failure of the system.

Calling Brown a “menace,” S.C. victims advocate Laura Hudson said at the time that the pardon board was “overwhelmed by this man’s persona and lost sight of public safety. ... What that says is, if you’re a celebrity in South Carolina, you can just do what you want.”

Brown, whose mansion was located in Aiken County’s Beech Island, died in 2006.

Leroy Jenkins

Not long after Greenwood native Leroy Jenkins was granted a pardon from South Carolina for conspiring to commit arson, he announced he would run for governor in Ohio.

The well-known televangelist and a purveyor of “miracle water” was convicted in a plot to set fire to the home of a highway patrolman who gave his daughter a traffic ticket and another person thought to have owed a gambling debt to one of Jenkins’ friends.

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Evangelist Leroy Jenkins The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch

He served about five years in South Carolina before winning parole in 1984 from the state.

At the time he requested the pardon, Jenkins was leading a church with 2,800 members in Ohio, where a federal jury had just acquitted him of tax evasion charges, according to The State.

“I feel that I did what I was supposed to do while I was incarcerated,” he said at the time. “I want to go ahead with my life and help people. I can do it better with this behind me.”

Last year, Jenkins died at the age of 83 from complications due to pneumonia, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

Thomas and Meeks Griffin

In 2009, Thomas and Meeks Griffin were granted what is believed to be South Carolina’s first pardon awarded posthumously.

The pardon came about after syndicated radio host Tom Joyner learned about his great uncles while watching a PBS documentary.

The brothers and pair of prominent black farmers in Chester County were executed by electric chair in 1915 for the murder of John Lewis, a wealthy Confederate veteran.

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In this Oct. 14, 2009 file photo, radio host Tom Joyner receives the pardon he was seeking for his great uncles who were executed in South Carolina in 1913 in the death of a 73-year-old Confederate veteran. Erik Campos The State

Joyner and his attorneys presented evidence to the parole board that raised serious doubts about the Griffins’ guilt, including reported claims by a fifth black man, Monk Stevenson, the Griffins’ accuser, that he killed Lewis.

Several prominent whites also doubted the brothers’ guilt and signed petitions to that effect.

The brothers also proclaimed their innocence. But the governor and the state’s highest court refused to intervene. The family lost 130 acres of farm in Chester County after selling it to pay for their defense.

“This won’t bring them back, but this will bring closure,” Joyner said after his uncles were granted pardons. “I hope now that they rest in peace.”

Reach Self at (803) 771-8658; @jamiemself
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