Jeffrey Holland ate a late lunch Friday and went home with a minor headache.
Just as the Albuquerque native closed his eyes for a short respite amid the chaos of his day, the phone rang. He didn’t recognize the number, but answered—because the longtime substance abuse counselor and stubborn believer in overcoming—is always on call.
“It was a young lady from the Governor’s Office,” says Holland, a close, personal friend of this reporter. “She said, ‘Hey, I’m calling to let you know that your clemency has been granted by the governor. She reviewed your packet and wanted to congratulate you on turning your life around, and to thank you for all the work you do for the community.’”
Holland was stunned. And Holland, staring down the barrel of his 51st birthday, is not easily stunned.
In the throes of what looked like end-stage addiction, which often ends in death, he was sentenced to three years in prison for a string of larceny and conspiracy charges in the late 1990s.
He did his time, got out and, since his release, hasn’t done much besides haul one human life after the next back from the cliff—mine included.
Minutes after he called to tell me about the pardon, a news release from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham hit my inbox. The first-term, Democratic governor had granted 19 pardons, including folks who’d been convicted of drug offenses, burglaries, auto thefts and more. Many had applied for mercy under previous governors and been denied.
Such acts of executive mercy in New Mexico have been astoundingly rare in recent years, as the release pointed out.
Not one New Mexican has received a pardon since 2012, the release said and then linked to a story I’d written in January 2019 for the Santa Fe Reporter and New Mexico In Depth as documented proof of the statement.
The story under the clickable hotlink in the news release reported that Lujan Grisham’s predecessor, Republican former prosecutor Susana Martinez, had granted just three pardons during her eight years in office. That’s likely the fewest in state history.
But the saga stretches back much further and tracks the work of two news organizations and a dedicated legal team.
In 2013, the state Parole Board released a limited set of records related to Martinez’ use of her pardon power—a gubernatorial blessing that can restore gun ownership, voting and jury service rights, not to mention wipe away a felony conviction and the stigma that can hinder someone getting a job or renting an apartment.
In Holland’s case, he wanted “vindication for my family name,” and the pardon stands as a “quiet, internal victory.”
The Reporter produced a cover story in 2013 based on the Parole Board documents under the byline of Justin Horwath, my erstwhile partner in investigative journalism. It was a groundbreaking piece, but Horwath wanted to know more about Martinez and pardons.
Her administration preferred that readers be left in the dark. So, the Reporter sued her in state District Court and won the release of her pardon files.
The victory allowed Horwath and me to dig in and produce a May 2018 story examining Martinez’s record. The upshot: Martinez granted just 1% of the pardon applications that crossed her desk. That compares unfavorably to the two men who preceded her in office; Republican-turned-Libertarian Gary Johnson granted 9%, and Democrat Bill Richardson granted pardons in 7% of cases.
Another revelation: Applications took a nose-dive while Martinez was governor, as lawyers who help people with pardon applications, often pro bono, began advising folks that it was a futile pursuit.
Some of those pardoned last week had tried before, under previous governors. Holland didn’t apply under Richardson, he says, “because it was too soon” after his conviction.
“And I was told don’t even bother under Martinez,” he says. “It was made very clear that, unless you’re an ally of hers or you’ve got some kind of in, you’re not getting pardoned by her.”
Fast forward to November, 2019. Holland says he “felt like it was time” and filed an application for pardon.
His life isn’t even a recognizable facsimile of the one that landed him in prison. He’s now the executive director of the Endorphin Power Company, a nonprofit, residential treatment center for recovering drug addicts in Albuquerque. And for anyone who pays attention to the push for better behavioral health outcomes around the state, Holland’s name is a mainstay.
He’s predictably humble as we chat about the pardon and what it means to him.
“It’s huge,” Holland says. “It’s kind of the removal of the scarlet letter, right? I know I’m not the most deserving person of this. There are people of color and wrongly incarcerated individuals both in and outside the system who are way more deserving, and I truly and with all of my heart hope that all of those situations can be rectified. But for me personally, I’m a native New Mexican, born and raised here. I’m a graduate of Highland High School. And I want to be an upstanding member of my state on as many levels as possible.”
This story was reported in partnership with the Santa Fe Reporter.