Mem­o­rable SC par­don cases caught na­tion’s eye

The Beaufort Gazette (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY JAMIE SELF jself@thes­

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 high­pro­file 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.

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


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.

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.


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.

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 in 2011. “I wanted to go to col­lege. I want- ed 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.


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.

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.

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.


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.

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.


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 well­known 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.

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.


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.

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.”

MAXIE SMITH The State file photo

Kay Smith ap­pears at her pa­role hear­ing on Dec. 14, 1989. 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.

GERRY ME­LEN­DEZ gme­len­dez@thes­

Civil rights ac­tivist Cleve­land Sell­ers is emo­tional in 2016 as he re­calls de­tails of the Orange­burg Mas­sacre in 1968.

TIM DO­MINICK The State file photo

Soul singer James Brown, cen­ter, re­ceived a par­don in 2003 for charges filed against him in 1988 and 1998.

Dustin John­son

Leroy Jenk­ins

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