Critics of controversial pardon call for apology, more accountability

LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — A group of American Legion members and others took to the streets Friday to protest a controversial pardon granted to a Legion member for a violent sex assault in 1993.

Carrying signs that read “Shame on You Neb. Legion Leaders” and “What if it was Your Loved One?” the group called on the American Legion to require a public apology from Legionnaires who had supported the pardon of John Arias.

Fifteen to 20 Legion members attended the Sept. 19 Pardons Board meeting wearing their official Legion caps, a show of support noted by all three members of the Pardons Board.

Clear guidelines needed

Critics of the pardon also said that stricter guidelines are needed for the Pardons Board to follow before granting an official apology for such a serious crime.

Arias’ ex-wife said she was personally disappointed that Legion members showed up in support of Arias. She said there should be a rule against ex-felons serving in Legion offices.

“You can live your life, but there are things you shouldn’t be able to do,” said Jody Snogren.

Snogren attended Friday’s protest along with 10 other women. Many wore teal bandanas, a symbol of sexual violence prevention.

Beth Linn of Scottsbluff, a former state commander of the Legion, said that it was wrong for Legion members to wear their official caps at the Pardons Boards meeting and that those who attended – including the current state commander – should at least apologize.

“We support our veterans. But you don’t use the Legion to wipe away your criminal past,” Linn said.

A ‘model’ citizen

Don Suchy, the current state commander who attended the Pardons Board hearing to support Arias, did not respond to phone and email messages left Friday seeking a response.

Previously, Suchy has said that the Legion does not condone violence but that Arias has been a “model” citizen since he completed his prison term. Suchy also said that typically, the Legion cap is only worn at Legion-sponsored events, but that  “the wearing of a Legion cap only indicates the individual wearing the cap is in uniform.”

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts presided over the Nebraska Board of Pardons hearing in September. The other board members are  Secretary of State Bob Evnen (foreground) and Attorney General Doug Peterson (Jazari Kual/Nebraska Examiner)

The three-member board, which consists of  Gov. Pete Ricketts, Attorney General Doug Peterson and Secretary of State Bob Evnen, has almost unlimited discretion on when to grant a pardon, which is an official forgiveness for a crime that restores civil rights, including the right to vote and gun rights.

In Arias’ case, obtaining a pardon also included removing his name from the state’s Sex Offender Registry, which Arias stated was the reason he was seeking a pardon — to remove a “stigma” from his name and allow him to seek higher office in the Legion.

The Pardons Board, according to a 1992 court ruling, “has the unfettered discretion to grant or deny a commutation of a lawfully imposed sentence for any reason or for no reason at all.”

The Pardons Board was created in the State Constitution, and there is no route to appeal one of its rulings.

John Arias, a volunteer mentor coordinator, was recently featured in a Grand Island Independent as part of a story about a veterans treatment court started in central Nebraska.
(Courtesy of the Nebraska Judicial Branch)

Typically, pardons are sought by people seeking to remove crimes committed when they were young, so they can restore voting and gun rights, or seek a job promotion. Pardons are also sought by those sentenced to life in prison. A board decision can lead to qualifying them for consideration for release via parole.

Arias, now 57 and living in Grand Island, pleaded guilty to first-degree sex assault involving an attack on his then-estranged wife. He served 14 years in prison and has not committed a crime since.

Vote was 2-1

Ricketts and Peterson voted in favor of the pardon, while Evnen voted “no,” stating that Arias didn’t seem to have “come to grips” with what was a serious crime.

Peterson, during the Sept. 19 meeting, stated that he was swayed by Arias’ service in the military (he is a former Marine) and his work with other veterans (Arias serves as a mentor coordinator for the Central Nebraska Veterans Treatment Court).

Ricketts, in a statement later, said that Arias had accepted responsibility for a crime, was “remorseful” and had been active in helping other veterans struggling with PTSD.

Rare in serious crimes

Before the vote was taken, Pardons Board members said it was rare that a pardon was granted for such a violent crime.

Moments before granting Arias a pardon, the board — in another controversial decision — had rejected the request of Earnest Jackson. The Omaha man has spent 22 years in prison for a murder he maintains he didn’t commit and one in which his co-defendants were deemed innocent.

Those participating in Friday’s protest rally disputed that Arias had shown remorse or accepted responsibility.

They noted that during the Pardons Board meeting, he was asked if he disputed that he had raped his wife. “I’m not calling her a liar,” Arias responded.

Snogren, in a recent interview, said her ex-husband had never apologized to her and had instead used setbacks in her life to remind her that she “deserved it.”

She said her former husband began abusing her long before he joined the military so that PTSD could not be blamed.

Shouldn’t be a mentor

Leanna Obermiller, a Legion member from Grand Island, said that Arias’ comment about not “calling her a liar” indicates clearly that he hasn’t accepted responsibility for his crime.

“How can you be a mentor to other veterans when you haven’t address your own issues?” Obermiller asked

Linn, the former state Legion commander, said she was particularly upset that current state and national Legion officials were among those supporting Arias at the Pardons Board meeting and said they organized their appearance without informing others.

Linn also called on the national Legion office to take some action.

Calls and messages left with that office on Friday did not elicit a direct response. A spokesman said the issues might be best addressed by Nebraska Legion officials.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: [email protected]. Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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