Connecticut is granting more pardons than ever for those committing nonviolent crimes, but what do we owe the victims in cases involving violence?
June 02, 2009
On a December night in 1987, a Southern Connecticut State University student named Michael Daluz, fearing he would be beaten to death in a racially motivated brawl outside a dive bar in New Haven called Skidders, shot one of his attackers, scattering the rest. Convicted of first-degree assault, Daluz served 18 months in prison.
Now, more than 20 years later, Daluz has joined a growing number of ex-felons in Connecticut to receive a pardon, thanks to a streamlined system designed to allow those who have straightened out their lives to rid themselves of the stigma of a conviction. A pardon is not intended to right a wrong, or fix a mistake. It is instead a recognition that the person receiving the pardon has reformed and become a valuable member of society.
Daluz's victim, however, was never notified of the pardon, as required by law, and that has State Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, very concerned about how the Board of Pardons & Paroles is doing its job. Lawlor was the principal sponsor of a bill to revamp the pardon process three years ago, and he's a true believer in pardons for deserving individuals — but only if the pardon is properly granted. And that means notifying victims first so they can object if they want to, especially in cases involving violence.
"For violent crimes it's an absolute requirement to track down the victim," said Lawlor, who is chairman of the legislature's Judiciary Committee. "The last thing you want is a victim to find out a guy got a pardon and you didn't know."
That's exactly what happened to Daluz's victim, who learned of the pardon when I called him last month to ask him about it. I found his name in a newspaper article that Lawlor said would have also been available to the two victim advocates employed by the Pardon Board to track down victims. I found his phone number with a simple Internet search, which Lawlor duplicated for himself. Although he declined to talk on the record, Daluz's victim seemed upset when given the news of the pardon.
Daluz's pardon is not yet final, and likely won't be until some time this summer. Although he received a letter last November telling him the pardon had been granted, the letter also said it was "conditional upon a final records check through the State Bureau of Idenfitication" and confirmation from "several sources" that his conviction has been wiped clean. That takes at least eight months, according to the letter.
"At that time we will issue to you a formal certificate of pardon," states the letter. "You should exercise caution regarding any statements you make until you receive the certificate of pardon. Once you have received the certificate, you may truthfully say that you have never been arrested in Connecticut."
Lawlor said it is unlikely that Daluz's pardon would be reversed, but he said it could be, based on the Pardon Board's own actions, which he sees as unlawful.
"The Parole Board did not use reasonable efforts to notify the victim," said Lawlor. "I believe they did nothing, therefore they violated the law. The law is very clear they have to make a reasonable effort to notify the victim."
Several calls to Board of Pardons & Paroles Chairman Robert Farr for comment on the process surrounding Daluz's pardon were not returned.
Now 43 years old, Daluz recently returned to the scene on New Haven's Fitch Street where nearly 22 years ago he was caught up in the fight that ended with him serving time. Daluz, who is black, says he and two companions were outnumbered by perhaps 4 to 1 as the melee — started by a personal beef between one of Daluz's friends and a white student — spilled over onto the street. Daluz remembers being knocked to the ground where he was punched and kicked by a group of white students.
"I started feeling a barrage of blows so I stuck my head down and I could see their feet all around me. I looked up and boom! I was out," says Daluz. "When I woke up they were kicking me, stomping me and then someone hit me again and I went out again."
After losing consciousness several times and waking up to hear death threats from the group standing around him, Daluz says he remembered he had a .22 caliber pistol in his pocket. Dealing drugs and running with gangs in New Haven in spite of growing up in a middle-class home, he often carried a weapon.
"I reach in and pull it out real slowly," says Daluz. "They lift me up; I pushed one of them off me and held out the gun. They didn't run. I pulled the trigger but the gun didn't go off. A guy said 'It's fake, grab him!' They started coming. I cocked it, backed up and fired. There was the loudest scream I ever heard in my life."
The bullet Daluz fired entered one of his attacker's arms, and then deflected into his chest. Seriously wounded, the victim's life hung in the balance during long hours of surgery, according to Daluz, but he survived. Daluz was charged with first-degree assault, serving 18 months at Cheshire Correctional Institution and New Haven Correctional Center before being released in 1990.
Today there's a parking lot for the newly renovated L.W. Beecher School where Skidders — a "little SCSU hole," says Daluz — used to be, with nickel beers, pool tables and a dance floor. Otherwise, Daluz says everything looks the same — a few modest colonial houses and small businesses across the street in a nondescript corner of the city.
After serving his time, Daluz eventually got his life on track after years of being trapped in menial jobs because of his felony conviction. For the past 2 years, he has worked as a clinician for the Community Renewal Team in Hartford, counseling people with mental health and substance abuse issues.
"He's a licensed addictions professional," said Theresa Nicholson, assistant vice-president of behavioral health care at CRT. "He came to us with a lot of experience and he also was honest about his situation. Mike has a unique way of being able to connect with clients he serves and has a very valuable place on our clinical team."
Daluz worked hard for his pardon, having been denied five times, he says, before his own intensive lobbying efforts got him one more hearing before the board.
"I was at the Legislative Office Building every day, speaking to senators and congressmen, telling my story until enough of them got tired of me and made a phone call," said Daluz.
Occupying a sort of legal never-never land, pardons alter history in the most profound way. Once Daluz's pardon is finalized it will be as if the shooting on Fitch Avenue never happened, from a legal standpoint. There will be no record of his arrest or conviction, and therefore nothing to block his way as he continues to develop his career.
As Chairman Farr states on the Department of Correction Web site, "The issuance of a pardon by the Board is an extraordinary act of grace which finalizes the transition of an offender into the community by expunging all or a portion of that person's criminal history from the record."
Representative Lawlor was instrumental in revamping Connecticut's pardon process three years ago, removing it from the purview of a single lawyer's office in Trumbull, who served as gatekeeper, and creating the Pardons Panel within the state Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Before the change, says Lawlor, the process to get a pardon was "unbelievably complicated," requiring hundreds of pages of documents and a wait of several years just to get a hearing.
This year, the Board of Pardons and Paroles has scheduled eight pardon hearings in Waterbury, New Britain, Middletown and Bridgeport from February through December, twice the number that were scheduled in 2007. The reason for opening up the pardon process is simple, according to Lawlor.
"The main goal at the end of the day is not to be nice to people," said Lawlor. "The main goal is for ex-offenders to have an incentive to straighten out their acts. Less crime, that's the goal."
And with an average of 36,000 people being convicted of felonies every year in Connecticut, Lawlor says it's in everyone's best interest to make it as easy as possible for deserving ex-felons to get good jobs by wiping their records clean. That's particularly true, he says, given that "two-thirds of the people in prison didn't commit a violent crime." Often they're there on drug-related charges.
"Our total ambition is to give people a second chance, that's it," said Richard Caron of the Connecticut Pardon Team, a nonprofit organization based in Norwich that helps people apply for pardons. "If we don't give these people a second chance it's costly to us. You can't put everybody in a barrel and put a lid on it. That's what we're doing with these prisons."
Caron started the Connecticut Pardon Team with his wife Jacqueline in 2000. Both husband and wife received pardons on drug charges after years of struggling through the old system.
"When I applied [for a pardon] back in 2000 there were only two hearings per year, only in Hartford," said Jacqueline Caron.
Today, Jacqueline Caron is a legislative aide to state Sen. Jonathan Harris, D-West Hartford, while Richard Caron, 63, is trying to retire from running the Pardon Team, still working on a part-time basis.
"Everybody makes mistakes, I don't care who it is," said Richard Caron. "We need to look at how much money we spend on homeless shelters and community resource centers. How many [of those in shelters and centers] have criminal records? Seventy-five to 80 percent. Give them an opportunity to go back to work. Make people more productive."
The number of pardons being granted in Connecticut is on the rise since the system was revamped, from a low point for the month of May 2005 of about 30 to nearly 110 in May 2008, the most recent number available. From November 2004 through May 2008, about 1,725 pardon applications were processed, and of those, about 975 pardons were granted — a success rate of about 56 percent.
The vast majority of pardons granted in Connecticut are for victimless crimes committed by people who have since straightened their lives out, working steadily and raising families. Pardons for violent crimes such as Daluz's are "very, very unusual," says Lawlor.
"I'm a big liberal and very much favored making pardons easier to get, but when it comes to violent crime in my view it's a whole different ballgame," said Lawlor. "You have to focus on the victim, especially in a violent crime involving a gun."
Melissa Farley, executive director of external affairs for the Judicial Branch, says the Office of Victim Services "does try their best to get ahold of any victim for notification purposes." She said the state also launched a victim registry in 1993 — six years after the shooting — that allows victims to be notified of any actions concerning their cases. As of Dec. 1, 2008, 4,619 people had registered with both the state Office of Victim Services and the state Department of Correction.
Daluz's victim was not registered, but Lawlor says that's no excuse for not contacting him, especially since Farley confirms victim advocates did find "a number of potential matches" for a phone number, but didn't call because they didn't have the victim's date of birth. Lawlor points out there was little chance for confusion if victim advocates had simply called all the numbers.
"I think most people would know if they were shot 20 years ago," he said.
Chairman Farr did not return calls concerning the panel's reasons for granting Daluz's request for a pardon, but the bar fight was likely a mitigating factor, along with Daluz's claim of self-defense.
"There was a lot of fights [at Skidders]," said Dwayne McBride, a college friend of Daluz's. "You had your basic clubs that followed the rules, then you had Skidders that had nickel-drink night a rock's throw from campus. That isn't good."
McBride, retired as a Bridgeport police detective after an injury from falling down a set of stairs in a crack house, was there in 1987 when Daluz was dragged back to Farnham Hall by his friends after the fight.
"Mike was a bloody mess, everything was swollen," said McBride. "They were holding him up, his cheeks were really huge and his head had lumps on it, I remember that. I thought it was a car accident."
Vomiting blood and passing in and out of consciousness, Daluz was hidden by black students from police, who had swarmed the campus surrounding Farnham Hall to search for him.
"I remember Mike being shuffled from one place to another," said McBride. "He was with me then someone took him to another room and another room. The next time I seen him he was outside. He was cleaned up, his face wasn't bloody, but he was like the elephant man. I had never seen a face swollen like that."
McBride said there was "confusion and pandemonium" as police tried to deal with hundreds of kids from the dorms and surrounding clubs who had poured into the scene in the early morning hours, separating into groups of black and white students. Adding to the chaos, someone had pulled a fire alarm in one of the dorms. McBride remembers police dogs and a helicopter circling overhead.
Hidden away in a dorm, Daluz surrendered himself to police when he learned that two of his friends who were not even at Skidders that night had been arrested.
"We were cuffed and taken away but it was short-lived," said Kirk Gordon, one of those arrested. "I guess Michael got wind of it and immediately turned himself in."
Daluz has written a memoir along with his cousin Bryant K. Daluz, about the SCSU incident, and his life afterward, called You Gotta Dance, which he says recently found a publisher. He says he's not too worried about his pardon being reversed, and that he believes in any case that the Pardon Board would disregard whatever the shooting victim has to say "if he has any nerve to actually come forward."
Farley confirmed that the victim has in fact "provided information" to the board, but she couldn't say whether it was in written or verbal form or what it was. Neither the victim nor the Pardon Board would discuss what was said or written.
For his part, Representative Lawlor is keeping a close watch on what happens in the Daluz case and pardon cases in the future.
"I believe they didn't even try to locate the victim [in the Daluz case] and that to me is completely outrageous and completely undermines the changes we made a few years ago," said Lawlor. "I want to find out whether or not they attempt to track down victims on pardon applications. We'll find that out."