It should be a merry Christmas for Derek Allen Rygh.
Unlike the other 17 people seeking “pardons extraordinary” last week, the Minnesota Board of Pardons didn’t probe the ugliness Rygh’s past by getting him to verbalize his crimes. Its three members—Gov. Mark Dayton, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea and Attorney General Lori Swanson—seemed more interested in what he is doing now.
But even without prompting, he offered a glimpse.
“The night of the meth lab fire, it was kind of my end right there,” Rygh said. “That night, when I called the police, I basically gave my life to God and just wanted him to take control from that point on. Since then I have dedicated my life to sobriety and to helping people who are in addiction.”
The board didn’t have to take Rygh’s word that he has helped countless other men recover from addiction over the past decade. At the table where he sat, Rygh was flanked by two supporters—Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, and Sam Anderson, director of Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge’s Brainerd office. That’s the addiction therapy program where Rygh also works.
“He is the staff that many of the people who come to the program go to for advice, because they have watched his life and watched him make the right choices now,” Anderson said. “We couldn’t be more proud of him.”
Gazelka has known Rygh for 10 years. They met at church. Their familiarity has grown as Gazelka performed his once-a-month volunteer work with Adult and Teen Challenge in Brainerd.
“For the last 10 years, I have seen him giving back and really helping many men break from the chains of addiction,” Gazelka said. “I don’t know how many men that he has had an impact on, that are now free as a result of him being there. So that is why I am here today.”
The board granted Rygh his wish. “I support the pardon,” Dayton told him. “Keep up the outstanding work.”
If his rehabilitation has been extraordinary, Rygh’s reasons for wanting a pardon weren’t. All wanted the taint of criminality lifted from them. All said a pardon would help him in their careers. Rygh, for instance, wants to become a nurse and has been told that without a pardon, he can’t get licensed.
There were many such stories during the four-hour hearing. One applicant, Joseph Henry Murrell, has four Anoka County convictions dating back to 1998. But since 2005, he has been sober and built up a solid career as a union carpenter. Even so, he said a background check once got him booted off of a job at a courthouse where he’d been working four months. Murrell wanted to put an end to that kind of thing.
It didn’t happen. His pardon was denied. Gildea said he still seemed to minimize his culpability.
Anthony Thomas Weis wanted a pardon on his 1996 Hennepin County conviction for first-degree sexual conduct involving a minor stepsister; she sat next to him Thursday supporting his application. He also was told no. His rehabilitation was impressive, board members said, but his crime was too great.
Ashley Dannielle Johnson was convicted in Beltrami County of cutting her boyfriend with a knife during a fight in 2004. But that was one wilder lifetime ago. Now she is married to her one-time victim, who was there supporting her application. Since those chaotic days, Johnson has graduated college, done tons of volunteer work and even gotten her criminal record expunged.
But none of that has kept roadblocks off her career path. Johnson, a mental health therapist, once failed a state Department of Human Services background check and lost a job, despite the desperate need for therapists in her county. Her application for a pardon was granted. She openly wept.
Gazelka said he would have voted the same way as the board in every case he watched play out from the audience in the Minnesota Senate Building. “I am glad I am not making those decisions,” he said. “It’s pretty tough.”
Gazelka had never before attended a Pardons Board hearing. He came away impressed at the state justice system’s mechanism for mercy. “It was very encouraging to see that,” Gazelka said. “It was a piece that I have not seen in action.”
The Dec. 13 hearing was Dayton’s last hurrah with the Board of Pardons. There, 12 of 18 people—fully two-thirds of applicants—were pardoned. At this year’s spring meeting, the panel wasn’t so generous. Just four of 12 applicants got pardons extraordinary. For all of 2018, 53 percent of applicants succeeded. That’s a Dayton-era record.
By contrast, 2017 was the Grinchiest year of his tenure; only 30 percent of applicants received pardons extraordinary. In 2016, 34 percent were successful. In 2014, 32 percent succeeded, while in 2013, the number was 31 percent. In 2011, Dayton’s first year as governor, the success rate was 38 percent.
Still, this year’s high number of pardons is not totally out of character for the Dayton-led board. In 2015, 18 of 39 applicants, or 46 percent, received pardons. In 2012, nearly half—49 percent—successfully demonstrated that they had reformed their lives.