Begging Your Pardon

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

Stan Turley told Hester bluntly, "You took this to trial, and got hit with a big number."

"I thought I was going to die," the inmate said of the moment in 1992 when Judge Velasco sentenced him to life imprisonment.

Hester spoke of his drug addiction, mentioning his experience in Vietnam.

Michael Hester, with "Father Guido Sarducci," circa 1978.
Michael Hester, with "Father Guido Sarducci," circa 1978.

"I got it all taken away from me when I was in college," he told the board, "and I was put in a position where I had to fight for my life every day. When I came back, my entire outlook on life was different. I was beat down with race, lack of money, and that caused me to go back to [drugs]."

Hester's mother and a longtime friend, Tucson schoolteacher Olivia Oros, also spoke on his behalf.

As the hearing ended, the board voted unanimously to recommend commutation of Hester's sentence to just more than nine years.

Because of the heavy backlog, however, the board didn't tell the governor's office until June 7, 1995, three months after the hearing. From that date, Symington had 90 days to decide Hester's fate, or the board's recommendation would become law.

On August 31, 1995, Symington rejected the panel's recommendations regarding Hester and 25 other inmates. But the governor's name appeared nowhere on paperwork provided by the board. Instead, policy advisor Maria Baier initialed the denial on her boss's behalf.

The clemency board informed Hester of the bad news. The inmate soon responded by sending Symington a bitter letter:

"When I was asked to serve my country, I did so without question . . . I deserve no less than any of this state's citizens. I am in no way trying to minimize the alleged offense against me for my past indiscretions. However, due to the extreme disproportionality of my sentence, I do now question your motivation for your decision and request an explanation of your discrimination towards my particular case."

Hester says he never heard back from the governor or his minions.

But Symington's decision against Hester shouldn't have come as a surprise.

In the end, the governor would commute the sentences of just 14 of the 216 inmates the board had recommended.

In one of those 14 cases, the board had recommended commutation of Darius Alexander's sentence from life to 10 years. In 1991, Alexander, then a 20-year-old black man, had been convicted of selling $20 worth of crack cocaine. Like Hester, he was on probation at the time, for theft and drug possession. One difference was a note in Alexander's file from the judge who had sentenced him: "The court finds that the sentence imposed was disproportionate to the crime and, given the opportunity to do so, would have imposed a less severe sentence."

Hester would get no such letter from Judge Velasco, with whom he'd had the ugly exchange in 1992.

Symington also commuted the sentence of Juan Felix-Garabaldi from life to 19 years. The Tucson man had been convicted of two counts of negligent homicide after a December 1991 car crash in which he broadsided a car whose driver had run a stop sign. Though the accident wasn't all his fault, Felix-Garabaldi had been speeding and was driving under the influence of alcohol. He was on probation for a burglary at the time, which had kicked in the enhanced sentence. It may have helped Felix-Garabaldi that the victims' families said a life sentence seemed too long.

Symington also showed leniency to AzScam figure Ron Tapp, an ex-lobbyist and bail bondsman who had been serving 10 years in prison on a bribery charge. The commutation led in 1996 to Tapp's early release.

Board member and Symington appointee Duane Belcher says he and his colleagues were gravely disappointed with the governor's negative response to their efforts.

"We felt we had an insight into the cases that he couldn't possibly have," Belcher says. "We were seeing and talking to the inmate, as well as studying the paperwork. But he was the governor, the politician. We were just a recommending body."

Stan Turley puts it more pointedly: "I don't recall Mr. Hester's case, but I'm sure it was one of the travesties of justice we had to deal with at the time. I'm a capital punishment kind of guy -- check my record -- but if a guy goes in [prison] and straightens out, and he got way too long of a sentence to begin with, give him another chance someday. I lost my respect for Fife during this. It's been a burr in my saddle for a long time. I'm glad [Hester] eventually won his case, and I hope he has a good life in front of him."

Says attorney Dave Derickson, "Fife just shot the parole board down, which was constitutionally appropriate, but made everyone's hard work leading up to it seem like a waste of time. You have to remember, strange as it sounds now, Fife was being mentioned as a presidential candidate in those days. He wasn't about to look soft on crime."

The governor shall keep the following: A record of his official acts.

-- Arizona Revised Statute 41-102

All official acts of the governor, except approval of the laws, shall be attested by the Secretary of State.

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