Editor's note: The Collegian does not name victims of crime.
Zachary Jesse, a 2014 T.C. Williams School of Law graduate convicted of aggravated sexual battery in 2004, petitioned the state of Virginia for a simple pardon by late summer 2018, though he was likely ineligible to apply for a pardon before May 2019.
“It bugged the living crap out of me that he was asking for a pardon,” said Jon Zug, Albemarle County Circuit Court clerk, who was the prosecutor in Jesse's case.
A simple pardon, according to the Secretary of the Commonwealth's website, is a statement of official forgiveness given by the governor.
"It does not expunge (remove the conviction from) the record," the website reads. Instead, a "pardon" notation is added next to the conviction on a criminal record.
As it stands now, Jesse’s criminal conviction is a factor in determining whether he qualifies for admission to the Virginia State Bar to practice law in Virginia, according to the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners' website. A pardon might remove that obstacle.
Jesse provided The Collegian the following statement over the phone.
“I accept responsibility for my actions, and with the outcome of my conviction, I recognize I am luckier than most," Jesse said. "I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully atone, but I hope that my community involvement and clean criminal record can be a start. After 15 years, all I want is a chance to not only be better but do better.
"To the extent that there are any defects in the filing of the pardon [petition], I’m sure the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office will address those.”
The pardon was pending in the Virginia Parole Board’s office on March 5, said Shirley Smith, parole board executive assistant.
The board will recommend either accepting or denying the pardon request and then return the request to the Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson's office for further consideration, Smith said.
As of May 14, 2019, a parole board administrator who wished to be unnamed said the pardon was almost certainly still processing with the parole board.
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In late summer of 2018, the survivor – whom Jesse sexually abused at the University of Virginia in 2003 – contacted Zug, after learning of the pardon request from the parole board, which contacted her while it investigated Jesse’s pardon request, Zug said.
“I can state unequivocally that [the survivor] opposes the pardon," he said.
At the time Zug was prosecuting Jesse's case, he was an assistant Commonwealth's attorney for the city of Charlottesville, according to his LinkedIn page.
The timing of Jesse’s pardon request raises questions.
On April 26, 2004, Jesse was sentenced to eight years in prison, with seven years and nine months of that duration conditionally suspended, according to the sentencing order. One of those conditions required Jesse to be “of good behavior” for ten years.
The sentence, and, therefore, the good behavior period, went into effect on May 18, 2004.
Theoretically, Jesse could have petitioned the court to shorten the period, but Virginia’s Judicial System website shows no record of the hearing necessary to alter the court conditions.
Jesse would have needed a hearing at the Charlottesville Circuit Court in order to shorten the good behavior period, and if there were such a hearing, the records would appear on the website, said Llezelle Agustin Dugger, Charlotesville Circuit Court clerk.
This means that Jesse completed the full ten years, which would have ended on or around May 18, 2014.
A person is eligible to apply for a simple pardon only after five years following the end of any court-set conditions, according to the Secretary of the Commonwealth's website. If Jesse’s court conditions ended in May 2014, he would first be eligible to submit a pardon application in May 2019.
The Secretary’s office decides whether a pardon request is eligible for consideration, said Trudy Harris, investigator for the parole board. Requests deemed eligible then go to the parole board for investigation and recommendation.
Jesse’s request made it from the Secretary’s office to the parole board despite his likely ineligibility.
The parole board's investigation into Jesse's case was underway during late summer 2018, Zug said.
If the parole board finds that a pardon petitioner was ineligible to apply, it sends the petition back to the Secretary of the Commonwealth's office, which then notifies the petitioner, the parole board administrator said.
Given the likely ineligibility of Jesse's petition, it is unclear why the petition had not gone back to the Secretary of the Commonwealth's office as of May 14, 2019.
However, the parole board has more than 1,700 pending pardons at the moment, some of which have been pending since 2013, the parole board administrator said.
A simple pardon would nullify Jesse’s conviction and remove him from the sex offender registry, Zug said.
In response to the news from the survivor, Zug wrote a letter to the parole board and the governor’s office opposing a pardon for Jesse, he said.
Most pardons are granted if a defendant was wrongly convicted or if there was some significant injustice done, Zug said. But there was no injustice in this case, he said.
Zug said: “I think what [Jesse’s] basic argument is is that ‘I made a youthful mistake. It really wasn’t that bad, so please pardon me. You know, it shouldn’t impact the entirety of my life.’
“But there are decisions that we make in our lives that impact us for the rest of our lives."
Zug believes he also wrote a letter to the Virginia State Bar around the time Jesse was taking the bar exam, Zug said. Zug argued in the letter that it would not be appropriate to admit Jesse to the bar.
“Going to law school and getting a law degree is one thing, but becoming an actual practicing lawyer is another," Zug said. "And that may be one of the reasons why he’s seeking to have a pardon, 'cause a pardon would allow him to become a member of the bar.”
As of now, Jesse is not a member of the Virginia State Bar, said Alicia, a Virginia State Bar staff assistant who asked to be identified by her first name only.
Jesse took and passed the written bar exam, according to a Reddit post he published on May 12, 2015. After the exam, Jesse had a hearing in December 2014 with the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners' Character and Fitness Committee to determine “whether [he] possessed the requisite good character to practice law in the state of Virginia,” according to the post.
“Based on my community involvement and scholastic achievements in law school, the C&F Committee did not deny my admission; however, they also did not immediately approve it, asking that I return in six months to give them time to reassess,” the post read.
Jesse wrote the Reddit post, titled “In light of recent discussion: a post by Zach Jesse,” after his criminal record resurfaced at an event in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
This was not the first time Jesse’s criminal record had resurfaced. When Jesse was a third-year law student in 2013, The Collegian published an article about the fact that Jesse was a registered sex offender, yet was admitted to the law school on its prestigious John Marshall Scholarship.
Regarding Jesse's application to law school in 2011, his Reddit post read, “Perhaps I was (and still am) naïve, but this vocation felt poetic.
“I had written my application on my conviction, how it had affected me, and how I meant to use it as a stepping stone to better myself and the community around me rather than a ball-and-chain."
In 2012, Jesse applied to have his civil rights restored, according to the Reddit post. In Virginia, convicted felons lose the right to vote, serve on a jury, run for office, become a notary and carry a firearm, according to the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s website. They can apply to have all of those rights restored, aside from the right to carry a firearm.
In order to qualify for a simple pardon request in Virginia, a felon must have successfully had his rights restored before he requests the pardon, according to the Secretary of the Commonwealth's website.
Bob McDonnell, Virginia’s governor at the time, granted Jesse’s civil rights restoration request in 2013.
Contact contributor Addie Jo Quinlen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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