At 27, Adele Langkil, mother of a 4-year-old son in Virginia, got her first extended break from her jobs as a single parent and waitress when her parents took the boy for a weekend. She spent a few days in New York.
Refreshed, returning home to Virginia Beach, she checked her bag at La Guardia Airport. It was 1985 and airline screening was not as rigorous as it is today, but the authorities noted that there was a handgun in the luggage.
“I was working as a waitress at night,” Ms. Langkil recalled Thursday. “A couple of people followed the girls home. I got a little gun. You didn’t have to have a permit in Virginia if it wasn’t concealed.”
For carriage of the gun, she was delivered to Rikers Island and charged with attempted criminal possession of a weapon and eventually posted a bail bond of $10,000. Appearing in court in Queens, she was told by a judge, she said, “‘This ain’t Texas; we don’t carry guns here.'”
A lawyer advised her that she faced one to five years in prison if she went to trial, but that the Queens district attorney’s office would allow her to plead guilty and get a year on probation. For a mother with a small child, it was hardly a choice.
Now 57 and a grandmother of two, Ms. Langkil to this day has been unable to outrun that arrest three decades ago.
She attended community college, was a member of the honors society and has worked her entire life. She is a notary public who is able to certify legal documents in the commonwealth of Virginia, and is permitted to carry firearms.
What she cannot do is fail to disclose her felony conviction. “I do clerical work and can’t advance, even when I’m qualified because of it,” she said.
Hired by one shipping firm for its accounting department, she was told a few days later that the job offer had been rescinded after a background check uncovered her conviction. The Norfolk, Va., school system was recently prepared to hire her for its collections department, she said. At a final-round interview, she explained to the superintendent that she had been convicted but had successfully petitioned for the restoration of her civil rights under Virginia law.
“He asked, ‘Did that mean you got a pardon?’ ” Ms. Langkil said. “I told him, ‘No sir, it did not.’ He said, ‘We can’t hire you.’ ”
A granddaughter was going on a field trip with her class and the school was looking for chaperones.
“The form asked if I was a convicted felon,” Ms. Langkil said. To keep from embarrassing her granddaughter, she pulled out.
Virginia has a program of “simple pardons” that grants official forgiveness for past crimes to people who have finished their terms and proven themselves in various ways to be worthy citizens. Two Virginia governors were sympathetic to her, but said they could not help: They were unable to pardon her for a crime committed in another state.
New York State offered her a “certificate of relief of disabilities,” which essentially restored her civil rights in New York State but says in bold type at the top, “This certificate shall NOT be deemed nor construed to be a pardon.”
She has applied to three governors of New York for a pardon. Mercy is a risky proposition for politicians at every level.
“Pardons are extraordinarily rare in New York State,” Donald D. Fries, director of the New York executive clemency bureau, wrote to Ms. Langkil in May, adding that they were considered “only when there is overwhelming and convincing proof of innocence.”
That’s not law; that is policy, and it conveniently shields governors from having to consider exercising their absolute authority to grant pardons, which erase a conviction, or clemency, which can lessen punishment.
For decades, prison and criminal convictions were national drugs that, it is now widely accepted, have been grotesquely overused. A number of federal judges are trying to untangle the knots that bind people for years after they got in trouble.
In 1985, when Ms. Langkil was convicted, 32,000 other people were arrested in Queens. Over the next 30 years, at least 1.1 million people were arrested just in that one borough of the city.
For a governor to fix one person’s needless problem by granting Ms. Langkil a pardon might, of course, mean that millions of others in the state could raise equally worthy claims. To ignore her and the others, though, is to let the dead hand of history continue to warp the daily lives of decent people.