Begging Your Pardon

Fife Symington's free and Michael Hester's not. But thanks to the ex-governor's oversight, that may soon change.

In the summer of 1967, Hester had a memorable chat with a member of the Black Panther Party. "I learned about the Revolution, and the part I had to play in it," he recalled in a recent letter. Hester started the Black Student Union at the university, and says, "It was not long before the Revolution consumed my every hour and every thought. My grades suffered almost as much as my people."

News clippings show Hester was quoted after several campus protests. After a 1968 run-in with the university president, he told the Tucson Citizen, "On every other campus, they are using violence. But here we are doing something constructive, and the [administration] won't respond."

Hester took a semester off in the fall of 1968, and the Army soon drafted him. He was inducted into service on February 13, 1969, at the age of 20. He got shipped to Vietnam in January 1970, where he was a radio message router in the battlefield.

Clemency board member Duane Belcher Sr.: "Things definitely needed fixing."
Paolo Vescia
Clemency board member Duane Belcher Sr.: "Things definitely needed fixing."
Fife Symington was known as a law-and-order governor before he got into trouble himself.
Paolo Vescia
Fife Symington was known as a law-and-order governor before he got into trouble himself.

Hester summarizes his war experience: "Never ran to Canada, never dodged anything -- except bullets -- as I fought for my country in a crazy war. One year, 12 days, 45 minutes, and 27 seconds later my flight left [for the States]. I had gotten a field commission, Sergeant E-5. I was also packing some unwanted luggage -- a drug habit."

After his honorable discharge in December 1971, Hester went to work through an Army-sponsored program for KSAN, a popular San Francisco radio station. That turned into a gig as the morning weekend jock. Along the way, he met the musical Pointer Sisters. Hester became their manager for a stretch, and later promoted music shows in the Bay Area and elsewhere. But drugs were ruling his life.

"My drug use was an everyday thing," he says. "Cocaine was my personal friend."

Hester later worked as a prime-time radio announcer in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. He was glib, hip and hot. A newspaper clip from 1978 listed him as San Francisco's number-one ranked radio talent.

But his luck ran out that year, when narcotics agents arrested him for his role in a multistate cocaine ring. A judge sentenced Hester to 30 months in prison after his conspiracy conviction. Records indicate he spent about six months behind bars, then bounced from job to job in the 1980s.

Hester says he made sporadic attempts to go straight, but his bond with cocaine remained inviolate: "It was just a matter of time before something was going to give."

It was. In 1988, Tucson police again arrested Hester on a charge of possessing a small amount of cocaine. He was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison. He served almost three years before being paroled in March 1991.

One year later, in March 1992, Tucson police charged Hester with selling about $50 worth of crack to an undercover agent. Hester decided to take his chances at trial rather than accept a plea bargain, which was an extremely risky proposition.

Arizona laws at the time dramatically increased sentences for repeat offenders, especially those already on probation or parole. That list included all cocaine dealers, from lowly street seller to kingpin. Authorities also hoped to dent the illegal drug industry by nailing dope dealers with mandatory minimum sentences.

The results of the tougher laws soon became evident: In 1983, according to the National Institute of Justice, one in 11 inmates nationally was serving time or awaiting trial for a drug crime. By 1997, it was one in four -- and that was specific drug offenses, not, say, a murder committed during a drug deal.

A jury in 1992 convicted Mike Hester of selling crack to the undercover cop. Because Hester still was on parole from his 1988 drug conviction, he faced an automatic life sentence. On November 23, 1992, Hester stood before Pima County Superior Court Judge Bernardo Velasco and blamed racism for his plight.

"Michael Hester," Velasco responded, "you were found guilty by a jury on those two counts, not because you are a black man, not because you were on parole, [but] because a jury of your peers was able to evaluate the evidence presented to them by the state, and the evidence presented by you, no doubt in part because of your totally incredible testimony, not worthy of belief."

"Worthy of belief because I am educated?" Hester interrupted. "I don't understand."

"No, excuse me, sir, not worthy of belief," Velasco replied. "You think you are educated, you may think you sound educated, but when it comes time to listen to the words and evaluate them, it doesn't work. You are to be committed to the custody of the Arizona Department of Corrections for a life term without possibility of release on any basis until 25 years have been served."

That would be the year 2017, when Hester will be 68 years old.

"The sentence-review process in question was never in my view a very good idea. I have never believed that the state owed any additional breaks to criminals already convicted and sentenced. America has come to be a crime-ridden society, with various liberal elites and media outlets perpetually portraying common criminals as victims of society, victims of difficult childhoods and now, victims even of a governor who reviews their individual profiles before rubber-stamping some process devised to hasten their return to the community. I refuse to do that."

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