Begging Your Pardon

Michael Hester awoke January 21 inside an Arizona state prison, where he's been for the past eight years. The 54-year-old Vietnam veteran is doing time -- lots of time-- for selling about $50 worth of crack cocaine to an undercover cop.

Talk inside the prison at Florence that morning concerned a pair of politicians, Bill Clinton and J. Fife Symington III. On the last day of his presidency, Clinton had pardoned the former Arizona governor, meaning Symington will not be retried on charges of lying to obtain millions of dollars from lenders and union pension funds. A jury earlier convicted Symington of the charges, but an appellate court ordered a retrial in the celebrated case.

The ex-governor's privileged dodging of criminal accountability did not escape Hester, who has served his time wisely, educating himself and staying out of harm's way. Hester, in fact, is obsessed with Fife Symington, and for good reason.

Before Symington's own criminal charges forced him to resign from office, the ex-governor made a name as a law-and-order type. As such, he did his best in 1995 to ensure Hester would stay locked up for at least 25 years. Symington did so by rejecting the unanimous recommendation of the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency -- hardly a panel that coddles criminals -- to commute Hester's sentence to nine years.

But the ex-governor's best may not have been good enough.

Using a novel legal tactic, Hester went on to argue in federal court that Symington didn't file his rejection notice with the Secretary of State. That, the inmate claimed, meant the ex-governor's decision never had become "official," and the clemency board's recommendation should have been binding.

At first blush, it sounded like a stretch, a mere legal technicality. Prisoners routinely sue the government, and seldom win. But Mike Hester did.

In a stunning ruling issued last August 22, U.S. District Court Judge John Sedwick decided that Hester was right. The judge's ruling means that Hester will be freed this December unless the state wins a stay with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

State solicitor general Scott Bales warns that, if the ruling does stand, dozens of Arizona inmates in situations similar to Hester's may also may be able to appeal their sentences and shorten their prison stays.

"You have the prospect that this ruling may lead to countless commutations, which we don't believe is right or legal," says Bales, who works for the Arizona Attorney General.

But Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Ron Reinstein -- who served on a mid-1990s committee that considered the inequity of sentencing in cases such as Hester's -- says he wonders "what Fife [would] do now in cases like this one, now that he's been on the other side of things as a criminal defendant himself. Would he show more compassion?"

Symington's not saying. Through his attorney, John Dowd, he declined to talk about the Hester case.

"Born 1948 in DeRidder, Louisiana, in my grandmother's back bedroom, my mother tried to kill me with her foot, and my grandmother saved my life."

-- from a letter written by Michael Hester

Michael Hester says he's been writing a book, to be titled The Adventures of the Holy Boogie Master (My Life at 46 2 RPMs). It's an apt title to describe his saga, which transcends his extraordinary legal battle.

Hester's tale mirrors the tumultuous times in which he's lived: He is a black man from Louisiana who became a campus radical during the turbulent late 1960s, before the Army drafted him. Hester then served honorably in Vietnam, but says he got hooked on cocaine during his year there. Later, he managed the famed Pointer Sisters, and became San Francisco's top-rated disc jockey. Eventually, though, he lost everything, including his freedom, to drug addiction.

These days, prison records indicate he's a model inmate. "He's a fairly imposing figure, balding, very clean-cut, looks like ex-military," says David Taylor Shannon, an assistant federal public defender who assisted Hester in his court battle against Fife Symington. "He's in good shape, and there's an intelligence in his eyes. He came into our first meeting with a bunch of paperwork, and I realized that he'd put tremendous effort into learning about and studying the system that has him trapped unjustly."

Hester is unusual among convicts in that he shoulders blame for many of his past troubles. In one letter to New Times, he wrote, "I have always maintained my innocence throughout all proceedings, not to be confused with claiming to be an angel."

Hester was born in 1948 to a father in the Army Air Corps and a mother who was the daughter of poor Louisiana farmers. He says his mother left his father in the early 1950s, and that his maternal grandmother raised him during his formative years.