August 21. 2013 11:21PM

Pardon hearing urged to send message a troubled life can be reclaimed

New Hampshire Union Leader

Thomas Schoolcraft is sworn in by Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice prior to testifying at his pardon hearing on Tuesday. (DAVE SOLOMAN/UNIONLEADER)

CONCORD — A decision by the Governor and Executive Council to pardon a Cheshire County corrections officer convicted of felony burglary as a teenager would send an important message about the role of forgiveness and redemption in the criminal justice system, according to a long line of witnesses who spoke on behalf of Thomas Schoolcraft at a pardon hearing Wednesday morning.

It would also recognize the remarkable accomplishments of a young man who has turned his life around to serve as an inspiration for inmates, they said.

No one spoke in opposition to the pardon at the two-hour hearing that included testimony from two Cheshire County commissioners, the Rockingham County attorney, social workers, college professors and Schoolcraft's mother, Carrie Daley of Seabrook.

She told the council her son was dedicated to giving young people in jail the hope that they can change their lives. "Whether he gets a pardon or not, he will persevere," she said, "and he will make a difference."

Schoolcraft, now 27, was convicted after pleading guilty in 2005 to a string of burglaries in the Seacoast area in 2003 and 2004. He served nine months of a 12-month sentence in the Rockingham County House of Corrections, and said while in jail he was inspired to resume his education after dropping out of high school.

He graduated in May of 2012 from Keene State College with a bachelor's degree in psychology, and is now enrolled in the master's degree program in criminal justice at Boston University.

For the past two years he has also worked as a Cheshire County corrections officer and received glowing reviews for his work with prisoners, even though county jail superintendents throughout the state are concerned that a felon was hired to work at the jail, and they want to change the rules to prevent such hires in the future.

"Rejection of this pardon request would be seen by many as giving added weight to their position," said John Pratt of Walpole, chairman of the Cheshire County Commissioners. "This pardon request has taken on a significance beyond the prison. We strongly believe that the House of Corrections must stand for the proposition that lives can be reclaimed, that redemption is not a pipe dream. We practice what we preach."

No legal standard

Rockingham County Attorney Jim Reams, whose office prosecuted the case, had previously submitted a letter to the council saying the pardon would be "hard to oppose," but he did not take a stand at the hearing.

"There is no legal standard or much tradition," he said. "I don't know what I would do if I was sitting in your position."

Schoolcraft told councilors and the governor that a pardon would be his only path to future employment in law enforcement, and that a more easily obtained annulment would not suffice.

Current rules do not prohibit a felon from being certified as a county corrections officer, nor do they require convictions be disclosed to the certifying board. Felons are disqualified from state prison jobs and other law enforcement positions.

Schoolcraft will soon be leaving his position at the Cheshire County Department of Corrections in Keene to find work closer to graduate school in Boston.

His attorney, Richard Guerriero of Keene, told the council there was no particular legal standard to guide their decision, and admitted there was no claim of injustice.

"The role of a pardon is also to recognize there is a place for forgiveness and redemption in the criminal justice system," he said, arguing that Schoolcraft is in a position to "provide something in the correction community that will be invaluable."

The council is scheduled to discuss and act on the request at its Sept. 4 regular meeting.

New Hampshire governors and the Executive Council have been reluctant to grant pardons, as only a handful have been granted in the past 30 years, according to Councilor Chris Sununu, R-Newfields. "Pardons in this state are a rare thing," he said at the conclusion of the hearing.