A familiar sound haunts Andrew Singleton from a night more than a decade ago, when he cocked and pointed a shotgun at three people he and his friends were robbing.
“There’s this sound you hear, when that chamber is loading back, and that sound is terrifying,” Singleton said. “I’ve heard it many times. Immediately, it’s like everything just froze.”
The decision landed Singleton in prison from 2008 to 2010. After eight years on parole and staying out of trouble with the law, Singleton recently received some long-awaited news.
In September, the state of South Carolina granted Singleton’s request for a pardon — a state panel essentially ruled that he is forgiven for his crime and that he’s paid his debt to society. The pardon comes with real benefits: it ends his parole, allowing him to move freely around the country for work or pleasure. As an HVAC repairman, he anticipates the pardon will also help him get more work, including on military bases and other federal property.
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But the pardon doesn’t erase Singleton’s criminal past from public view. Potential employers and anyone else running a background check will see the crimes Singleton was convicted of alongside his pardon.
That reality — that an offender’s crimes will follow him through life — is fueling a debate about whether South Carolina, which already pardons more people than its neighboring states, should also expunge the criminal records of more offenders, including those who are granted pardons.
Such a move would shield offenders’ criminal actions from public view, giving them better chances of getting jobs and building successful lives — a complete restoration of their rights, advocates say.
But critics counter that businesses have a right to know whether a potential employee has a criminal record, and members of the public have a right to know the same about their neighbors, friends and significant others.
“We’re talking about citizens beware,” said S.C. victims advocate Laura Hudson, who lobbies state lawmakers on victims’ behalves. “You’re not going to know who’s moving in next door to you, whether they have a record or not.”
Singleton says he has long wanted a pardon, especially since he’s worked so hard to turn his life around.
After his pardon hearing, Singleton and his family, including his wife and two sons, dined at California Dreaming in Columbia to celebrate.
“Ah, man, we ate so much food,” he told The State from his home, days after receiving his pardon certificate, his cellphone constantly buzzing with requests for his HVAC repair services. “It tasted even better. Because it was like, man, I’m free.”
SC forgives but doesn’t forget
Granting roughly 400 pardons a year, or about 64 percent of eligible applicants, South Carolina frequently forgives.
And the desire of the accused or convicted to take available opportunities to clear their criminal records also is strong.
The State Law Enforcement Division, in the 12 months prior to July, processed orders to expunge the criminal records of more than 92,000 accused or convicted offenders — or 252 a day — that agency says.
Some lawmakers want to change the law so that, whenever offenders are granted pardons, their charges and convictions also get swiped from their publicly available record.
Singleton said he certainly would have preferred the clean slate for himself. He and others deserve it, especially when they have shown their merits through their productivity, “through deeds, through their experience, through their work record,” he said.
Expunging those records so they are not publicly available would restore someone’s rights completely, said state Rep. Todd Rutherford, a Columbia Democrat and defense attorney. Instead, easy access to criminal records online makes it impossible for someone to move on from a dark past, “that scarlet letter,” he said.
The U.S. Constitution says the crime should fit the punishment, Rutherford said, “and what we’ve done is make it so some of these people cannot get a job for the rest of their life.”
Not all offenders are violent criminals, he added.
Drug offenders get pardoned at higher rates than violent criminals, according to The State’s analysis of pardon hearing outcomes from 2007 through 2017. Offenders typically have a string of convictions for which they’re requesting a pardon. However, roughly three in four applicants who had drug convictions received their pardons during that time.
In contrast, offenders who had committed the most violent of crimes were pardoned less often. Criminal sexual misconduct convictions received pardons about 10 percent of the time. Seven murderers were granted pardons out of 86 applicants in that same frame — a failure rate of 92 percent.
Last month, Singleton became one of 128 offenders charged with robbery who received pardons over the decade span. His odds were pretty good. A person convicted of robbery has about a 57 percent change of winning a pardon, based on the review of past records.
Singleton says he deserves the pardon, though he would prefer a clean slate. He says he’s a far cry from the reckless young man he was years ago, but he knows now what was driving that version of himself.
“My father died when I was 13 years old, and that left a void in my life,” Singleton said, adding that he filled that void by seeking the approval of other men, gang members, with whom he started running with at age 15.
The state’s penchant for forgiveness puts it behind only Alabama, and in line with Connecticut, for sheer number of pardons granted in a year, according to the Restoration of Rights Project, which has tracked state policies and practices on restoring the rights of offenders since 2004.
According to the Restoration of Rights Project, the Palmetto State is one of 14 states that frequently grants pardons.
Seven states grant pardons regularly, but sparsely; 12 states grant pardons infrequently and inconsistently at the direction of the incumbent governor; and 19 states — the largest block of all — have granted few to no pardons in the last 20 years, according to the RRP.
In South Carolina, the state considers requests for pardons for any crimes.
But to be eligible, offenders must complete their sentences, pay restitution and, if on parole, successfully complete five years under supervision. Inmates also are eligible for pardons, but only if they can prove extraordinary circumstances or have terminal illnesses with a life expectancy of one year or less.
Why seek a pardon?
At a Sept. 5 hearing of pardon requests, each of the 61 applicants heard some version of the same question.
“Tell me, how is this pardon going to help you?” asked Henry Eldridge, chairman of the seven-member S.C. Board of Paroles and Pardons. It meets monthly to decide who gets a pardon in South Carolina.
An older man, who knife swiped a bouncer at a bar, said he sought the pardon because he wanted the state’s forgiveness before going to meet his maker. Another man, who got in trouble on prescription drug charges, said he sought the pardon to give his aging 89-year-old mother peace of mind in knowing he was forgiven.
The majority of offenders said jobs and the desire to restore their rights were driving them.
If an offender is still on parole, a pardon ends that state oversight, allowing the person to vote and even run for office. Sex offenders, however, are still required to register, regardless of whether they are pardoned.
Some see a pardon as removing an obstacle to getting a professional license from the state boards that issue them, including medical professions such as doctors, nurses and dentists, and other occupations such as engineering, funeral home operators or cosmetologists.
Still others seek pardons as a path toward restoring their state rights to apply for concealed weapons permits or to buy firearms.
An attorney had that in mind during the hearing when he came to speak in opposition to the board granting a pardon to a man who, going through a nasty divorce, held the attorney captive and pointed a firearm at him. The man’s firearm had “tombstone” etched in the side of it, the attorney recalled.
The attorney told the pardon board that he opposed the rearming of his enemies.
“I can still forgive him, but I don’t have to face him with a gun,” he said, shortly after which the board voted unanimously to deny the man’s request for a pardon.
The ‘light that scares them’
Generally speaking, a pardon will “speak volumes” about how far someone has come from their criminal past, Singleton said.
For Singleton, a pardon means not getting so many questions when he tries to go on federal property for work. He’s had to pass up work at Fort Jackson because of his record, said the heating and air-conditioning specialist.
It also means not having to get a travel pass each time he leaves the state, including to Charlotte for work. He says his pardon also will help him expand his business and, more simply, help him feel like a citizen again.
He was 19 that night in 2005 when his poor decisions put him in prison.
“Mom told me, either you’re going to come with us to go to church, or you’re going to get out of my house.”
So he packed up some clothes and his PlayStation and went to a friend’s house. That’s when he got the phone call.
“My homeboys came to pick me up. We’re drinking, we’re smoking the whole day. So we’re just asking for trouble,” he said. Then later that night, the real trouble began.
“We picked this guy up, and he said, ‘Hey, you know I got a sweet lick for you,” Singleton said, referring to the slang for stealing money. The guy said he’d just bought drugs from a group of people.
“Man, y’all gonna be straight,” the guy told Singleton and his friends, indicating they would make out well robbing the group.
So they went to the house, and Singleton’s friend handed him a shotgun. At first, Singleton’s friends went into the house and he stayed in the yard, clutching the gun. He was nervous and queasy, watching through the window as one of his friends points a gun at the victims, thinking at one point that he would run away.
Instead, one of the guys called him by name to come into the house.
“So I get in the house, and I lock the door behind me. I have this big ol’ gun in my hand.”
He held the group at gunpoint, and he and his friends took their drugs and money and went to a hotel. About a month later, Singleton was arrested.
“I was really out to prove myself,” he said looking back on his former self. “These guys, you know, they were counting on me, and I felt like, man, I’m a part of something now. ... I’ll do whatever it takes for these guys. Whatever. No matter what it is, I just want to be in the in crowd,” he said.
Singleton’s perspective on life changed once he was behind bars. He started traveling the state with other inmates to share his story with youth as a cautionary tale. He said he emphasized that everyone has choices, and no matter what circumstances they find themselves in, they can choose not to be a “product of their environment.”
“The only thing that you have to prove to people is that you’re going to be the best you,” he would tell them.
Now, eight years after winning parole, Singleton has lived a lot. He is a husband and a father of three, including his first son who died suddenly in 2016 from an immune deficiency before his second birthday. Singleton is a small business owner, doing heating and air-conditioning repairs. And he’s a homeowner who lives on a cul-de-sac in northeast Richland.
Singleton says he tries to focus on being successful, something that eluded him as a young person. Young people sometimes fear success and the power that can come with it, he said, recalling a scene from the movie “Coach Carter.”
“For some kids, it is that light that scares them. It ain’t the darkness,” he said. “That’s what it was for me.”