Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has granted clemency to 24 people, including the co-defendant of a Cuban immigrant who was pardoned in 2017 to prevent him from being deported as well as a state trooper hailed for stopping a gunman who entered the office of a previous governor over a decade ago but was accused of pointing a gun at a driver last year.
In one of a series of executive orders Thursday, Polis ordered Michael Clifton, who was convicted of committing an armed robbery with Rene Lima-Marin in 1998, be released on parole at the end of January.
In 2008, Lima-Marin was mistakenly released from prison early. He married and started a family before being sent back to prison when the state realized its error nearly six years later. A judge later ordered Lima-Marin to be released again. But he was picked up by immigration authorities on a deportation order based on his conviction, prompting then Gov. John Hickenlooper to pardon Lima-Marin.
In a letter explaining his decision, Polis, a Democrat, said that Lima-Marin's pardon was among the reasons he decided to issue a limited commutation of Clifton's 98-year sentence, as well as because his punishment was far beyond the typical range for such a crime and the work he has done in prison to help other offenders recognize the effect of their crimes on victims.
“You have taken accountability for your actions and recognize the mistakes you made in the past. You are remorseful and ready to advance to a new phase of life. I believe you will be successful upon your release,” Polis wrote.
Jason Kasperek, the assistant manager of one of two video stores robbed by Clifton and Lima-Marin, said Friday that he visited Clifton in prison with the help of a restorative justice councilor about six months ago after Polis’s office informed him they were considering clemency.
Five years after Kasperek opposed Lima-Marin's pardon, he said he was impressed by Clifton and questioned his own part in his conviction. At the time, Kasperek remembers being told to focus on what Clifton did, which instilled “anger and hate” and made him “base (Clifton’s) entire existence off those few minutes of what he did in that store.”
“I never had a chance to sit there and think. They never told me that he had children. They just said remember what he did," said Kasperek, a photographer who ended up joining Clifton's mother in campaigning for clemency for him. “He made a sporadic decision and robbed a store. I made a sporadic decision and put him in prison.”
When he got the call Thursday night from the governor’s office about Polis' decision, said Kasperek, “I just came undone.”
Polis also issued a pardon to and commuted the one-year probationary sentence of Jay Hemphill, who pled guilty to misdemeanor menacing this year. He was arrested after allegedly yelling and pointing a gun at a driver as he was crossing the street near the state Capitol in 2021.
Polis noted that Hemphill was a member of the state patrol unit that provided security at the Capitol, serving under five governors, and had protected Gov. Bill Ritter from a gunman who walked into the governor’s office in 2007.
“You made a mistake in a brief instant when you thought you were under threat, and no one was physically harmed. You properly reported the incident to your chain of command within the Colorado State Patrol. This mistake should not define your career or detract from your act of heroism in protecting Governor Bill Ritter from a gunman,” Polis wrote.
In 2007, Hemphill shot and killed Aaron Snyder after he walked into the reception area of the office dressed in a tuxedo and declared that he was the emperor of the state and there to take over.
Hemphill talked to him and got him to step out of the office but shot him after Snyder drew back his jacket to show a large gun in his pocket, according to a summary of the shooting investigation.
Polis also ordered that Robin Farris, who was convicted of first-degree murder in 1991 in Arapahoe County, be paroled next month after serving 31 years in prison. He noted that, had Farris been convicted under current law, the crime would have been classified as a class 2 felony, which would have made her eligible for parole over 10 years ago.
The other 19 people who were pardoned in addition to Hemphill committed non-violent crimes like theft and drug possession, mostly when they were young adults, and have already served their sentences.
Many more people campaign for clemency than ever receive it. This year that includes Gordon Johnston, who is 12 years into a 64 year sentence for selling ecstasy. Johnston has become a highly regarded dog trainer during his time at Sterling prison.
A pardon, a public forgiveness for a crime, restores the rights of people to things like serving on a jury, holding public office and possessing firearms.
Bedayn is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.