Pardon me? Haywood man’s presidential pardon reveals systemic inequities
On a frosty Appalachian mountain morning in 1962, 22-year-old Waynesville man Charles Miller brought his car to a stop on a little-used road not far from a rushing creek in a rugged, remote section of Haywood County.
Almost as soon as he got out, two Haywood County Sheriff’s deputies who’d lain in wait appeared out of nowhere, accompanied by an agent from the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Division of the Internal Revenue Service — the ATF.
Miller had with him some components and tools commonly used in the production of illicit alcohol. He also happened to be in the general vicinity of an active moonshine still.
“I was makin’ liquor,” he said, nearly six decades later. “But I wasn’t makin’ liquor on that still.”
Regardless, Miller and a friend were arrested and five weeks later convicted on federal moonshining charges.
More than two decades after his conviction, Miller received a full pardon from President Ronald Reagan. Miller’s pardon was the culmination of a long journey from that cold spring day to that mailbox where he first learned he’d been pardoned, but his was a much different journey than that of the beneficiaries of pardons that have already come at the hands of outgoing President Donald Trump.
“There was this cabin, not too far from the still,” Miller told The Smoky Mountain News on New Year’s Day, 2021. “We didn’t know anything about the still being there. If we had, we wouldn’t have been there.”
Miller, now 80, still has a sharp memory for detail that he portions out in distinct, contemplative, leisurely Southern Appalachian meter.
“They chopped the still down, and then come back down and knocked the door off the basement of that cabin,” he said, pausing. “There was four-and-a-half gallons of white liquor in there.”
A story in the April 19, 1962, edition of the Waynesville Mountaineer says it was only three-and-a-half gallons, but who’s counting? Otherwise, the story backs up the details of Miller’s account.
Released on his own recognizance, Miller stood trial on May 17 and was convicted on May 23 of violating five sections of Title 26 of the U.S. Code — the Internal Revenue Code — all dealing with the production and possession of untaxed liquor.
Although moonshine, moonshiners and moonshining have all been romanticized in Appalachia, Western North Carolina and Haywood County lore, it was then and is still a very serious criminal matter.
“The judge was Wilson Warrick, a fine fella. A very respected gentleman,” Miller said. “He sentenced us to 15 months in prison and then put us on 30 months’ probation. Charged us a $250 fine.”
They even seized the car Miller was driving when he was arrested.
“This wasn’t just a car,” he said. “I ordered this car direct from the factory with a full racing package. It was a 1961 Chevy Impala. It had a 350-horsepower engine in it.”
The sentence was reduced to 30 months’ probation, and Miller didn’t spend a single night in jail. As a result, he didn’t have to miss a single day of work at Champion Paper’s Waynesville facility, where he’d been employed for two years and made about $60 a week.
Once he completed his probation, Miller began to think about the consequences of his conviction.
“I couldn’t own a firearm. That didn’t keep me from owning them, and I bear hunted for 45 years. I never did stop hunting and carrying a gun,” he said. “In the meantime, I found out that you could apply for what they call ‘relief from disability’ through the ATF and that gave you permission to own a firearm.”
Miller was successful in acquiring that relief, which, he said, got him to thinking about a full pardon.
The power to grant pardons for federal crimes has been part of American government since the very beginning. Section 2, Clause 1 of the Constitution’s Article II states that the president “… shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.”
Like much of the Constitution, there’s little guidance on how the power of the pardon can or cannot be used. Although courts have narrowed its applicability over the years in some ways, almost every single president has used it — some, thousands of times.
President George Washington pardoned 16 people during his eight-year tenure, including two men convicted of treason during the Whiskey Rebellion. John Adams, who followed Washington, pardoned 20 people, but once the third president, Thomas Jefferson, took office the number of presidential pardons issued per president was usually above 100.
Andrew Johnson, who took over as president after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, pardoned almost all former Confederate soldiers as well as those who participated in the rebellion in other ways.
At the onset of the 20th Century, most presidents pardoned somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand people. Franklin D. Roosevelt pardoned more than 3,600.
In the modern era, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford (who pardoned Nixon), Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan brought the averages back down to around 500 pardons per administration. George H.W. Bush pardoned only 77 people, including several related to the Iran-Contra affair.
Bill Clinton was a bit more lenient with 459, but George W. Bush’s history of pardons more resembled that of his father, with 200. Subsequently, Barack Obama brought that number back up to a level not seen since Harry Truman — nearly 2,000.
Prior to his General Election loss this past November, Trump had only pardoned 27 people, including a posthumous pardon for women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony, who was fined $100 and court costs for illegally voting in 1873.
After his loss, Trump kicked off the first wave of 11th-hour pardons on Nov. 25, when he pardoned his former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who pled guilty to two counts of making false statements to federal investigators about conversations with the Russian ambassador.
On Dec. 22, Trump pardoned 15 more people, including two of his former campaign workers, George Papadopoulos and Alex van der Zwaan. Both were convicted of lying to federal investigators during Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
Several former Blackwater contractors were also given pardons related to their roles in the massacre of 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including women and children, in 2007.
Former Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter, who pled guilty to misusing campaign funds over seven years to finance his extramarital affairs, also received a pardon.
The next day, Trump pardoned Hunter’s wife, Margaret Hunter, who was convicted of conspiring to help her husband misuse campaign funds — including by spending $500 on a cross-country flight for the family’s pet rabbit, Eggburt.
Along with Margaret Hunter’s pardon, Trump issued 25 more pardons on Dec. 23. Several of them were granted to former advisors or members of his inner circle like Roger Stone and Paul Manafort, convicted of obstruction and tax evasion, respectively.
Wealthy New York real estate developer Charles Kushner was also included in that round of pardons by Trump. In 2005, Kushner was convicted on 16 counts of fraud and false statements related to illegal campaign contributions.
He was also convicted of retaliating against a witness — his brother-in-law, who was cooperating with federal investigators. Kushner hired a prostitute to seduce his sister’s husband, recorded the encounter and delivered the footage to his sister.
Kushner is the father of current Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner, and father-in-law of the president’s daughter, Advisor to the President Ivanka Trump. Jared and Ivanka’s children are likely the only Americans to have one grandfather that’s been pardoned by the other.
“The feeling I’ve got is, that shows you how unfair part of your justice system is,” Miller said.
The executive clemency process for a Haywood County millworker like Miller appears to be much different than for people like Kushner, Manafort and Flynn.
“Trump passes them out like they’re Christmas cards,” Miller said. “I got this pardon on my own. I did not have no help from anyone else.”
Miller has his pardon from President Ronald Reagan framed. Donated photo
When Miller first began to pursue his pardon in 1981, he started with Asheville attorney Herbert “Hub” Hyde.
“He was one of the finest federal lawyers in the country,” Miller said. “I went to him and talked to him and when I asked him about the pardon — he was kind of an elderly man — I can remember exactly what he said. He said, ‘Son, you’re talkin’ about somethin’ that’s almost impossible.’”
Miller then went to Hallett Ward, Jr., a Waynesville attorney who recently passed away in October 2020.
“He was the finest criminal lawyer in Haywood County,” said Miller. “He said he wouldn’t even know where to start.”
Undaunted, Miller went to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Asheville, where a woman in the office told him about the U.S. Pardon Attorney. The Office of the Pardon Attorney is a division of the U.S. Department of Justice that has since 1893 administered the process by which applicants may request one of several forms of executive clemency: commutations, remissions of fines, reprieves or pardons.
Applicants must wait five years after conviction or completion of sentence, whichever is greater, to ask for such relief.
When applications for relief are received by the Office of the Pardon Attorney, the agency then instigates and directs an investigation of the petitioner. Guidelines on the OPA’s website state that generally, pardons are granted “on the basis of the petitioner’s demonstrated good conduct for a substantial period of time” after a conviction or the completion of a sentence.
“I had character letters from the sheriff, two chiefs of police, those two deputies that helped arrest me, the mayor and the supervisor in my department at Champion,” Miller said.
Investigators from an alphabet soup of federal agencies then began showing up, asking questions about Miller.
“An FBI agent called [longtime friend] Earl Lanning out of the mill down there and talked to him about me,” Miller said. “He also talked to my foreman at the plant. The agent wouldn’t tell my foreman what this involved.”
Eventually, Miller himself had to report to the FBI’s Asheville office.
“I answered 10 million questions. Some of the questions was like, ‘How many square feet’s in your house? What color is it painted? What kind of cars have you ever owned? What kind of credit cards do you have?’” he said. “I also had to give them quite a bit of my family genealogy.”
One morning around that time, Miller was at home, asleep after working a graveyard shift when his wife answered a knock at their door.
“It was two fellers in suits,” he said. “One of them pulled out a badge and said, ‘We’re agents of the U.S. Treasury Department, and we’d like ask you some questions about one of your neighbors if you don’t mind. We’d like to ask you about Charles Miller.’”
Miller’s wife told the agents that she could indeed answer their questions — or simply wake him up, because she was married to Charles Miller and he was presently in the house, in bed, sleeping.
“Shit,” the agent said, kicking the gravel beneath his feet. “I thought I was at Charles Mitchell’s house.”
“Well,” Miller’s wife said, “Mitchell lives right over there. You can leave your car parked here and just walk there if you want.”
Personal investigation aside, the OPA also takes into account the recentness and seriousness the offense and the applicant’s actual need for relief, in addition to “the extent to which a petitioner has accepted responsibility for his or her criminal conduct and made restitution to its victims are important considerations. A petitioner should be genuinely desirous of forgiveness rather than vindication.”
In December 1982, Miller got a letter informing him of his fate.
A few days later, he received a certificate in the mail, dated Dec. 23.
“To all whom these presents shall come, greeting: be it known that this day the president has granted onto Charles David Miller a full and unconditional pardon and has designated, directed and empowered the associate attorney general as his representative to sign this grant of executive clemency …”
Embossed with a gold seal and signed by then-Associate Attorney General Rudolph Giuliani, the certificate marked the end of Miller’s quest.
Asked how he felt when he first saw the certificate, Miller said the pardon itself hadn’t meant as much to him as the fact that he’d done the whole thing, all by himself.
As of Jan. 5, Trump hadn’t pardoned anyone else since his Dec. 23 batch, leaving his total at 70. He does, however, have almost two more weeks to use executive clemency. Rumors have since swirled that he may pardon more family members and more key members of his administration.
“We hear and we read that no man is above the law, and this goes back to the Magna Carta, no one is above the law and no one should be above the law,” Miller said.
The power of a president to bypass the OPA process entirely isn’t really questioned, and a Supreme Court opinion called Ex Parte Garland says preemptive pardons are indeed a thing.
Those enumerations could become important as talk of pardons for Trump’s children, and even the man who signed Miller’s pardon, Giuliani, gets louder.
“He’s going to pardon them for what they have done without anybody knowing what they have done,” Miller said.
And then, there’s the issue of Trump pardoning himself . There doesn’t appear to be any settled law one way or the other on whether that’s possible.
“How can he? How can someone pardon themselves for doing something they should have known not to do in the first place?” said Miller.
If it is indeed possible for a president — and all future presidents — to pardon themselves on their way out the door for acts committed during their tenure, is that really an environment in which Americans want to live?
“No,” Miller said. “I don’t.”