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UPDATED: Executive Council denies pardon for former corrections officer

New Hampshire Union leader

September 04. 2013 8:28PM
Thomas Schoolcraft of Keene thanks Executive Councilor Debora Pignatelli, D-Nashua, for her support after the 3-2 council vote against a pardon him. The former Cheshire County corrections officer was convicted in a series of burglaries eight years ago. (Dave Solomon / Union Leader)

DURHAM — The Executive Council in a 3-2 vote Wednesday denied a pardon to former Cheshire County corrections officer Thomas Schoolcraft.

Schoolcraft, who is pursing a graduate degree in criminal justice at Boston University, had hoped pardons in New Hampshire and Massachusetts would clear the way for him to pursue a career in law enforcement, but he has now been denied in both states.

After the vote at Huddleston Hall on the UNH campus, he said he would complete his studies and pursue opportunities in criminal justice that might still be available to him despite his conviction in connection with a series of burglaries in the Seacoast area of New Hampshire and Massachusetts nine years ago.

Councilors Ray Burton, R-Bath, and Debora Pignatelli, D-Nashua, voted for the pardon, while councilors Chris Sununu, R-Newfields, Chris Pappas, D-Manchester, and Colin Van Ostern, D-Concord, voted against.

Schoolcraft was accompanied by his attorney, family members and supporters, including Cheshire County Department of Corrections Superintendent Richard Van Wickler, whose decision to hire Schoolcraft as a corrections officer two years ago despite his conviction has generated controversy among the state's county jail supervisors.

The 27-year-old graduate of Keene State College recently resigned his Cheshire County position to pursue his studies in Boston. He thanked the councilors individually for hearing his case, and said he respected their decision.

"I'm going to go forward and try to stay positive," he told a group of reporters. "I want to stay active and involved in the law enforcement community. Hopefully there is another agency, like Supt. Van Wickler in Cheshire County, that would be willing to have me and to give me a chance like he did."

Schoolcraft, who expects to graduate from Boston University next September, said his thoughts and apologies go out to the victims of the 2004 burglaries.

"My way of giving back was staying in the field, and trying to help people in similar situations avoid future trouble, which is ultimately what rehabilitation is about," he said, "keeping the community safe."

No injustice, no pardon

A long line of supporters, including two Cheshire County commissioners, social workers, college professors and other associates, spoke in support of Schoolcraft at a two-hour pardon hearing on Aug. 21, describing how he has served as a role model for young inmates.

Before Wednesday's vote, each councilor spoke and all five commended Schoolcraft for what he has accomplished, and the extraordinary impact he's had on at-risk youth. But Van Ostern, Sununu and Pappas agreed that there was no injustice in his conviction, and therefore no case for a pardon.

"We should err heavily on the side of rejecting a pardon unless justice demands it beyond a shadow of a doubt," said Van Ostern. "When it comes to forgiveness, a better and more accurate measure than a pardon was demonstrated in the unanimous outpouring of support at the pardon hearing, telling him that society has forgiven him for his crimes."

He described Schoolcraft as "a remarkable young man with a bright future who has a lot to offer this state."

Sununu reminded fellow councilors of the seriousness of the crimes in question. "This is a man who invaded the homes of nine people, went in at night, sometimes when people were sleeping in their beds. They cut the phone lines on three houses, intensifying the potential for terror on these families," Sununu said. "His work is commendable, but to just start offering a pardon because he wants to have advancement in his job, to me, it's a no-brainer. This is not appropriate."

Pappas said the crimes are still very vivid in the minds of the victims, one of whom he described as "uneasy about this process going forward."

By the time Pignatelli spoke, it was obvious that Schoolcraft would not have the three votes needed for a pardon. She encouraged him to reapply in another couple of years.

"That's a possibility," he said afterward. "I'm not sure if I'll ever get this kind of support again, but we'll see where my career goes and what happens."

Lynch back on board

In other votes, the council approved the appointment of former Gov. John Lynch as a member of the University System of New Hampshire's Board of Trustees.

Before being elected governor, Lynch was the USNH board chairman. He replaces lobbyist and former Senate President Edward Dupont of Durham, a 10-year trustee, who also served as the board chair for several terms.

"I am honored to return to the USNH Board of Trustees," said Lynch. "Higher education faces many challenges, including shifting student demographics and the integration of new technologies enabling students to gain a quality education at reduced cost."

Before the meeting started, a delegation of UNH students led by student body president Bryan Merrill of Londonderry, presented the governor with an oversized thank-you card in recognition of her support for a tuition freeze at the state university.

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