WASHINGTON — They were convicted of drug dealing, bid-rigging, eavesdropping, embezzlement, auto theft, bank fraud, gambling, destroying mail, firearms offenses, counterfeiting, shoplifting — and the illegal importation of tortoises.
They're members of the largest class of presidential pardons granted by President Obama.
As Obama has put more resources into using his clemency power to shorten mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, he's granted fewer pardons than any two-term president since George Washington.
Nearly 2,000 pardon cases remain pending, many since the early days of the Obama administration. As President-elect Trump brings an uncertain pardon policy to the White House, the eleventh-hour grants of presidential mercy are especially sweet to the 78 people who received them just before Christmas.
Unlike a commutation, which shortens a prison sentence but leaves other consequences intact, a full pardon represents a legal forgiveness for the crime and restores all civil rights. Many of those who received pardons said the public vindication means more to them than any of the rights they regained.
Serena Nunn got the news of her pardon through a phone call from her lawyer, Sam Sheldon, who asked her, "What do you want more than anything else in the world right now?"
"The symbolism that comes with a pardon, I'm just so blessed," she said.
Double dose of clemency
Nunn was 19 when she was caught dealing drugs with her boyfriend. "I've never tried to come across as some super-innocent person," she said. "You’re with a guy, the first time being in love, and whatever you see him doing, you do. You just don’t think about consequences or that certain things will happen to you."
She received a 15-year sentence in 1990 and served more than 10 of them before President Bill Clinton commuted her sentence in 2000. She finished college and — with the help of unprecedented character references from Clinton and the judge who sentenced her — was admitted to the University of Michigan law school. She's a public defender in Atlanta.
Obama granted her a full pardon.
Such a double dose of clemency is rare but not unprecedented. P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist who has tracked clemency from President George Washington to Obama, estimates there have been more than 100 such cases in history, including publishing heir Patty Hearst, who was convicted of bank robbery in 1976, released from prison by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 and pardoned by Clinton on his last day in office in 2001.
"What I will say is, both of them are extremely important, and everybody who's been affected by President Obama's decision to grant as many as he's done are extremely grateful," Nunn said.
As a lawyer, she said she understands why commuting sentences has been a priority for the Obama White House.
"Most judges, when they're dealing with their calendars, they’re thinking about the people who are in custody, not those out on bond. When people's liberty is taken away, that's the priority, right?" she said. "People who are incarcerated because of mandatory minimums, for eight, 10, 12, 13 years — the only relief they’re able to get is through the commutation process."