By Joe Duggan
LINCOLN - _____ stands before two rare opportunities that could change the course of his life.
One could restore his reputation.
The other could revive a dream.
The 25-year-old Norfolk man recently participated in a free-agent tryout for a chance to punt in the National Football League. His odds of making it, though slim, would improve if not for three words that turn up on the background check: registered sex offender.
So when _____ isn't punting, he's working toward a pardon.
He took a step closer Thursday when the Nebraska Board of Pardons granted his request for a hearing. On May 20 he'll get to make a case for clemency, which also would scrub his name from the sex offender registry.
The Pardons Board rarely considers the applications of sex offenders. But board members said they are willing to listen to this one because _____ has lived an exemplary life except for one crime committed as a 14-year-old.
He didn't rape, fondle or even touch anyone. In 2003 he and two other teenage boys made a secret video of two or three female classmates using a shower at his mother's house in Pierce, Neb. The incident involved a game of truth-or-dare and the camera also caught one of the girls using the toilet, according to documents in his Pardons Board application.
Three years later the video was discovered and turned over to police by the girls. _____, who had turned 18, was charged as an adult and later convicted of two felony counts of child pornography.
His many supporters have argued that while _____ made a serious mistake, the charges didn't fit the crime. They pointed out that the video wasn't uploaded to the Internet, nor did _____ and the other boys use it for sexual gratification.
But the video still caused harm.
A 46-year-old Pierce man whose then-13-year-old daughter was on the tape said she underwent counseling and struggled with trust issues. He also said she endured pressure from those in Pierce who resented the charges against a star high school athlete.
The father said he has mixed feelings about the pardon application. On one hand, he thinks it's time for _____ to get on with his life. But it bothers him that _____ has never apologized to his daughter for what he did.
“I'm not saying he's a horrible, horrible person,” the father said. “But I wish he would have manned up and said 'Yeah, I did it, and I apologize.' ”
In an interview last week, _____ said he was friends with the girls before the crime and has long wanted to apologize. But his attorneys always advised him not to say anything.
“I feel really bad for ... the girls,” he said. “That had to be horrible.”
His mother, said the ordeal divided Pierce, a community of 1,800 in northeast Nebraska. She eventually moved and now lives in Fort Collins, Colo.
A divorced mother working two jobs to support her family, she said she has always carried guilt over what happened because she wasn't home at the time.
“I can't even tell you how bad I wanted to tell them 'Sorry,' ” she said.
The job of weighing remorse, justice and public safety falls to the members of the Pardons Board: Gov. Dave Heineman, Secretary of State John Gale and Attorney General Jon Bruning. It requires a majority vote to grant a pardon.
Not only does the board rarely pardon sex offenders, it usually requires felony applicants to live 10 years crime-free after their sentences. _____ has not yet hit that mark.
For those reasons, Gale said _____ has a high bar to clear. Heineman said he will reserve judgment until the May hearing, waiting to see if victims or others submit letters or testimony of opposition.
But it appears _____ has gained Bruning as an ally. The attorney general had one of his investigators look into the case in advance of Thursday's meeting. Bruning, who pointedly confronts applicants when he senses dishonesty, said _____'s story checked out.
However, there is some dispute about what happened to the tape after it was made. In his pardon application, _____ said he never watched the tape after that day, which Bruning adamantly supported based on his office's examination of the case. Gale said the way he understood it, _____ had shown the tape to friends.
If the tape had been discovered before _____'s 18th birthday, _____ would likely have been charged as a juvenile, Bruning said. As it was, the attorney general suggested that less-serious charges would have been a better option.
Pierce County Attorney Verlyn Luebbe prosecuted the case. He did not respond to multiple messages left last week with his receptionist.
Other factors in _____'s favor include pre-sentence psychological evaluations that found he is not a sexual predator and showed he was a minimal risk to reoffend. He completed all of his probation requirements, which included more than 20 sessions with Dr. Kevin Piske, a Norfolk psychologist who specialized in treating sex offenders.
“As part of this process, he took full responsibility for his actions while coming to a thorough understanding of the effect of his actions on the young women involved,” Piske wrote to the board, noting _____ is the first former patient he has ever endorsed for a pardon.
The psychologist was one of 93 people who submitted letters in support of _____, which likely represents a record number, said Sonya Fauver, the board's administrator.
At the top of the list were letters from a state trooper with knowledge of the case and retired District Judge Patrick Rogers, who presided over _____'s trial.
“I commend him for all of his accomplishments since 2007, even while carrying the burden of his offense,” Rogers wrote. “He could have easily given up, as I believe so many others do.”
_____'s status forced him to give up on his dream of playing football for a major college program. He had been invited to walk on at Kansas State University, but he was told the school couldn't take a chance on a sex offender. He also had to leave the dorms.
Although it was difficult, he found off-campus housing and finished his second semester at Kansas State. He transferred to Highland Community College in Highland, Kan., where he played football. Then he got a call from Dan McLaughlin, head football coach at Wayne State College.
McLaughlin had recruited _____ in high school and he still wanted him to play at the Division II college. McLaughlin knew about the circumstances of the conviction, but he also said he knew _____ personally. The coach worked it out with college administrators and offered _____ a scholarship.
Moving back to Wayne meant he would have to cross paths with others who knew about the tape. But in 2009, he accepted the offer, which required him to live off campus.
Some teammates were uncomfortable with his status as a sex offender, _____ said. When they learned that the incident did not involve violence, most players accepted him. McLaughlin said he was aware of no conflicts over the issue during _____'s years on the team.
McLaughlin called _____ the best punter he has seen in his 30 years as a coach. During _____'s junior and senior seasons he won numerous conference, regional and All American honors.
He graduated with a degree in business management in 2012.
McLaughlin appeared before the Pardons Board in December, when _____'s request initially came up for consideration.
“I don't go and speak in front of the attorney general and the governor of Nebraska for a kid that doesn't deserve it,” he said.
The registry still haunts _____, especially when it comes to finding employment and housing. He said he has held some temporary jobs but hasn't been able to get an offer related to his major when employers learn he is a registered sex offender.
Melissa Stevens, a former criminal justice instructor who spent years working with abused children, got to know _____ when he was a student at Highland. She was skeptical for several months, but she grew to admire _____ for his kindness to other students.
“How many people do you know in the world who would even have a chance to make it in the NFL?” she asked. “But he can't because of this. It just doesn't seem fair.”
Still, _____ said he finds it hard to complain. He has had so much support from family, friends, teachers and coaches, he rarely gets depressed. They and his faith in God are the reasons he has never quit, he said.
A pardon would afford him a degree of freedom he has never experienced as an adult.
If a pardon is denied?
“We try again,” he said. “I'm ready for both.”