Minnesota woman granted first unconditional pardon in 35 years

The Minnesota Board of Pardon unanimously granted a full pardon to Maria Elizondo in a case that Governor Tim Walz says touched many people.

The three member Board of Pardons, consisting of Gov. Walz, Attorney General Keith Ellison, and Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea held a short six-minute hearing on Monday to grant the pardon.  The hearing was extension of Elizondo’s request first discussed at the Board of Pardons on December 15th.

Ms. Elizando was charged and pled guilty to welfare fraud and identity theft in Norman County in 2012.  Records indicate Elizando underreported her income when applying for welfare benefits from State of Minnesota.  A county fraud investigator received a report that Elizando had been working at a local turkey farm under the name of Natalia Rubio.  A further investigation showed that Elizando had provided the farm with a social security number and alien registration card belonging to two other individuals.

Documents submitted to the Board of Pardons show Elizando illegally entered the United States from Nuevo Loredo, Mexico in 1977 when she was 18 years old.  She initially lived in Loredo, Texas where she suffered psychological and physical abuse from her then partner.  She moved to Minnesota in 1978 and currently lives with her husband, daughter and four of her 14 grandchildren.

Elizondo’s attorney said she applied for welfare benefits in 2008 to feed her children and avoid losing her home.  The attorney says she faced spiraling financial pressure after her son, Jorge, joined the National Guard and was deployed to Afghanistan.

Ms. Elizondo was convicted in 2012 and ordered to pay $24,578 in restitution to the State of Minnesota.  A judge stayed her prison sentence and she was ordered to serve 30 days under home monitoring and 10 years of probation. 

Because Elizondo was convicted of aggravated felonies, the Department of Homeland Security placed her into removal proceedings.  She faces deportation as soon as her probation is up in 2022.  The looming deportation is why Elizondo and her family have asked for the full pardon so they can reapply under federal law with the immigration judge to remain in the U.S.

At her pardon hearing on December 15th, Chief Justice Gildea said she would only support her case if Elizondo paid the remaining $15,215 owed on her restitution.  As soon as the hearing ended, a number of law students at the University of St. Thomas took action.

"So we watched the Board hearing, the Board of Pardon hearing, and then that evening we went to work," said second year law student Andrea Meitler.  They created a GoFundMe page to raise the money.

"We published it the next day and within 22 hours we received the full amount of 15-thousand dollars on behalf of Maria," said Meitler.

It was that money that paved the way for the Board of Pardons to grant Elizando her full pardon for what St. Thomas Law Professor Mark Osler called a crime of poverty.

"The question before the Board, the Pardon Board, was do we grant the pardon and allow her to be home while her son is probably going to be deployed abroad as a member of the National Guard? Or, do we grant her the pardon and free her from the worry of deportation?  And they made what I believe is the correct choice," said Osler.

The weight of the decision was not lost on Walz.

"This will be the first time the Board of Pardons has granted full and absolute pardon since 1984. When then Governor Perpich, Attorney General Humphrey and Chief Justice Amdahl pardoned an individual for second degree forgery," said Walz during Monday’s special hearing.

This is now the second modification of a sentence by Walz and the Board of Pardons in in the past two months.  On December 15th, they modified the sentence of Myon Burrell, allowing him to leave prison after serving time for the 2002 murder of 11-year-old Tyesha Edwards.

"What we’ve seen is Governor Walz, who is not an attorney, I think really has a heart for this part of criminal law," said Osler. "There is that society value that so many of us believe in, which is mercy has to be a part of the system at some point. There has to be this ability to forgive.  And he’s really shown some leadership in changing the way that clemency has been viewed."

And for a group of St. Thomas law students, they’ve used Elizondo’s case as a powerful lesson in justice.  "And I think it just shows the power of mercy and power of generosity and that we each can be a part righting the wrongs of our past and that there is nothing that is too far gone from being redeemed," said Meitler.