September 5, 2013

Criminal past to follow rehabilitated burglar

Despite an impressive transformation, Thomas Schoolcraft won't have a felony record purged.

The Associated Press

DURHAM, N.H. – New Hampshire's Executive Council on Wednesday denied a pardon for a convicted burglar who went from criminal to college graduate and county corrections officer in less than a decade after being released from jail.

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Cheshire County Corrections Officer Thomas Schoolcraft , left, listens with his attorney Richard Guerriero as an Executive Council vote fails 3 to 2 on a pardon request for burglaries he committed as a 19-year old teenager during an Executive Council meeting held at Huddleston Hall at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H. September 4, 2013. (John Huff/Foster's Daily Democrat)

All five councilors commended 28-year-old Thomas Schoolcraft for his achievements, but voted 3-2 against granting him a pardon, which would have erased his felony convictions and allowed him to further his career in law enforcement.

"Please take from this the admiration members of this council and this governor have for everything you've done," said Gov. Maggie Hassan, who did not vote. "We'll hold you out as a role model."

Schoolcraft, who sat on the edge of his seat with hands clasped as each councilor spoke, needed several minutes in a remote corner of the ballroom at the University of New Hampshire's Huddleston Hall to compose himself before thanking the councilors individually for their consideration of his pardon bid.

"It's hard, but at the same time I just have to let go," Schoolcraft said. "I respect those decisions that were made."

Schoolcraft dropped out of school in the ninth grade and pleaded guilty to committing nine burglaries at age 19. He served nine months behind bars then went through a transformation that many have called amazing.

He got his high school equivalency degree then went to Keene State College to major in criminal justice, earning a bachelor's degree. At Keene State, he met Cheshire County House of Corrections Superintendent Rick Van Wickler, who teaches at the school.

Van Wickler offered him an internship, then a job as a corrections officer several years ago. He sat alongside Schoolcraft as the votes were cast.

Schoolcraft has worked as a corrections officer at the Cheshire County jail for more than two years, but left recently to attend Boston University this fall to obtain a master's degree in criminology.

"The convictions make things very difficult," Schoolcraft said of his future job prospects in law enforcement.

Having a felony record precludes someone from being hired by the state Department of Corrections as a prison guard or as a probation or parole officer and most law enforcement jobs. Misdemeanor records are reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

Councilor Ray Burton, the first to speak, said he would vote for a pardon. He said Schoolcraft had "benefited profoundly" from his incarceration. But councilors Chris Sununu, Colin Van Ostern and Christopher Pappas sounded the death knell. All three raised concerns that the crimes occurred less than a decade ago and left homeowners terrified to discover their phone lines cut and their homes violated.

"His work is commendable at corrections, but to offer a pardon so he can have advancement in his job and carry a weapon? ... To me it's black and white. It's not appropriate," Sununu said. "This is a man who invaded the homes of nine people. He went in at night, sometimes when people were sleeping."

Councilor Debora Pignatelli voted in favor of a pardon, saying, "I think he has done exceptional things with his life and I would like to see those continue."

Only two pardons have been granted in New Hampshire in the past 30 years. In the most recent case, a mother of three was pardoned in 2011 for a felony escape conviction dating back to 1982 when she climbed out of the window of a police cruiser. Keith McNeil was pardoned in 2003 on a domestic violence conviction that prevented him from deploying to Iraq with his National Guard unit.

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