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‘A bit opaque’ and confidential: Behind Illinois’ gubernatorial pardon process

‘A bit opaque’ and confidential: Behind Illinois’ gubernatorial pardon process

Man who pleaded guilty to arson named fire chief after Pritzker grants clemency

By BETH HUNDSDORFER
Capitol News Illinois
bhundsdorfer@capitolnewsillinois.com

SPRINGFIELD – Jerame Simmons got his long-held wish in December when he became the chief of the fire department that dismissed him 24 years ago after he was charged with setting fire to a vacant house and attempting to burn down his high school.

It took a prosecutor’s dismissal of a serious felony arson charge, a plea deal to get rid of two other felonies, misdemeanor charges wiped from his record, dismissed domestic violence charges and a limited police investigation into a gun charge to help make it happen.

But it was a pardon from Gov. JB Pritzker that finally cleared the way for Simmons to become the full-time, paid fire chief for the Prairie Du Pont Fire Department.

It’s one of 162 pardons issued thus far by the governor.

The case drew national attention as 11 of the department’s 13 firefighters resigned following the fire protection district’s decision to oust the former chief in favor of Simmons, although some of them reapplied. A petition from the ex-chief’s wife to remove Simmons currently has 128 signatures.

It also shined a light on Illinois’ pardon process, described as “a bit opaque” by a former U.S. pardon attorney.

The process starts with the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, a governor-appointed, 14-member board which has, for several months, been operating with three vacancies and nine members serving without full state Senate approval.

The board reviews all clemency petitions and makes a recommendation to the governor as to whether they should be granted, but their decisions are confidential, according to the board’s chief legal counsel, Kahalah Clay.

“(T)he IPRB does not retry cases,” Clay said. “The IPRB reviews the petitions that come before them and makes the requisite recommendations based on those petitions.”

Simmons filed his petition on July 15, 2019, directly contradicting contemporary law enforcement reports of a number of 1998 incidents which led him to confess to setting a fire and using his father’s law enforcement siren to make an unlawful traffic stop.

“This is a nightmare I play through my head a lot,” Simmons wrote in his petition to receive that pardon. “If I had a chance to change anything in my life, it would be the month of January and February the year of 1998. Those two months have put my whole life upside-down regarding any career that I wished to have in any full-time job in public safety.”

In his petition for clemency, Simmons, the son of a former deputy U.S. marshal and Metro East mayor, claimed innocence and submitted testimony from local officials attesting to his work ethic and trustworthiness.   

Due to the confidentiality of their recommendations, it’s unclear how the IPRB weighed his former guilty plea against Simmons’ current-day claims of innocence and evidence of reform.

But Pritzker’s spokesperson, Jordan Abudayyeh, pointed to consideration of rehabilitation in his clemency decision.

“The governor is a strong believer in criminal justice reform and that means carefully and thoughtfully considering petitions for clemency from those who have demonstrated a commitment to rehabilitation while serving their sentence and after,” she stated. “The governor takes the PRB’s recommendations to heart as he weighs these decisions.”

Simmons did not return repeated requests for comment.

 

The discrepancies

The fire that led to Simmons’ guilty plea occurred Feb. 13, 1998, when an abandoned home nearby a bonfire that Simmons had attended was set ablaze.

The contemporary report from the Illinois Fire Marshal noted there was a 5-gallon gas can with a small amount of gas inside found on the first floor of the home, and flares were found at three different locations throughout the house. Evidence of an accelerant was found on the steps of the home, which had been set on fire three times before.

The report also outlined that Simmons, who was 18 years old at the time, was driving a white van seen leaving the scene of the fire, and he wore gloves and a coat that had the odor of gas.

As well, Simmons’ cousin told police that Simmons had started the fire.

Simmons eventually confessed to a St. Clair County Sheriff’s detective, but in his petition Simmons said the officer “acted like a jerk” and lied to him to leverage the confession.

Simmons now blames his cousin, according to the petition, which described the evening in question as a typical night out that went terribly wrong.

Simmons wrote he took a girl to dinner, then to a local bar and grill, then to a bonfire in a rural area near the village of Dupo. Everyone at the party was drinking or smoking marijuana, he wrote, except him.

At that bonfire, he bumped into his cousin, who later asked for a ride home.

Someone had the idea of lighting a nearby vacant house on fire, and an unlit road flare was tossed into the home, according to the petition.

After the teen boys taunted each other as “chicken,” Simmons wrote, his cousin threw a lit flare into the house. The others watched and shouted. Simmons wrote that he left the scene with his cousin in tow and his date in the backseat.

Simmons, who was a volunteer firefighter at the time, received a page alerting him of the fire as he was dropping his cousin off at home. He headed to the Prairie Du Pont fire station where he served as a volunteer firefighter and went out to help extinguish the fire at the vacant house.

That’s when police stopped Simmons and questioned him after a neighbor identified the white van leaving the scene of the fire.

After his arrest, Simmons was charged with starting another fire at Dupo High School one month prior to the February evening. He could have faced 15 years in prison on that charge.

Simmons was also charged with using emergency lights to stop a car in the early hours of Jan. 24, 1998 – nine days after the fire at the school and three weeks before the fire at the vacant house.

The two men reported a white van pulling them over. The driver of the van got out, asked if the two men had alcohol, then displayed a badge and told them he was a U.S. marshal. The van driver left, but the man who was pulled over called deputies. They found Simmons at the wheel of a white Chevrolet Astro Van registered to his father, Herb Simmons, who served as a deputy U.S. marshal.

Herb Simmons, who was then the mayor of East Carondelet, later worked as the 911 coordinator for St. Clair County. He now oversees St. Clair County Emergency Management.

Simmons wrote in his petition that he was in the car with a friend when his friend hit the emergency light. Simmons wrote that he immediately turned it off, but the car in front of them pulled over. The car then followed him to a nearby gas station – where he was confronted by his brother’s ex-girlfriend who was a passenger in the car. In his petition, Simmons denied ever getting out of the car.

 

The deal

In 1999, prosecutors offered Simmons a deal. They dropped the most serious felony, related to the Dupo High School fire. In exchange, Simmons would plead guilty to the other two charges. Simmons avoided jail time, receiving a sentence of four years of probation.

Despite claiming innocence in his 2019 petition, Simmons never filed a petition for post-conviction relief, never appealed in state court, and never challenged his convictions in federal court in the 20 years following his guilty plea.

That’s not surprising, said Margaret Love, who served as U.S. pardon attorney between 1990 and 1997, and has represented numerous individuals in the federal conviction clemency process.

“It’s hard to overturn a conviction, especially if there is a guilty plea,” she said.

While claiming innocence in a clemency petition is rare, it’s not unheard of, she added. 

“Both things can be true,” she said. “That he confessed and pleaded guilty and that he is actually innocent.”

Simmons completed his probation but was later charged with a host of other crimes. Those include:

  • A 2006 charge of leaving the scene of an accident, to which he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months supervision.
  • A 2006 charge of violating an order of protection, which was dismissed.
  • A 2008 charge of falsely impersonating a police officer, which was also dismissed.
  • Two charges in 2008 for violating an order of protection, both of which were dismissed.
  • A 2009 charge of obstructing a police officer, to which he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to conditional discharge.
  • A 2016 charge of disorderly conduct, to which he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 90 days of court supervision.

In 2018, Simmons was charged with disorderly conduct for a fight at a strip club in Sauget. One of the bouncers at the club told police that Simmons pulled a gun on him when he tried to remove his wife from the club, according to a 2018 report from the Belleville News-Democrat.

Simmons later told police that it was an electronic cigarette. Police did not review the surveillance tape of the incident, the article said. If the tape showed Simmons had a gun, it could have resulted in a felony possession charge.

Instead, Simmons pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and received 90 days court supervision.

He also included an explanation for the violations of the order of protection charges. The petition stated that Simmons and his wife had a “falling out” and he was arrested.

In a sworn petition requesting that order of protection, Simmons’ wife outlined six months of abuse that included choking, punching, head-butting, breaking her phone and threating to “blow up” her car.

A Monroe County judge ordered Simmons to stay away from his wife for two years. Simmons’ wife later asked the judge to lift the order, but he refused. 

 

The PRB

The Illinois Prisoner Review Board’s responsibilities include setting release conditions for offenders exiting prison, making decisions on the revocation and restoration of good conduct credits, holding hearings to determine whether parolees have violated conditions of parole, and notifying victims and their families when an inmate is about to be released.

That’s on top of providing confidential recommendations to the governor.

The clemency process is not always transparent, but it is absolute, said Love, the former pardon attorney.

“The Illinois system is a bit opaque,” she said. “As far as the Prisoner Review Board, who knows why they recommended or didn’t recommend it? And who knows why the governor granted it or didn’t grant it?”

Nine of the 11 current members of the Prisoner Review Board appointed by Pritzker are awaiting full approval from the Senate, and there are three vacancies on the 14-member board.

Despite the urging of the Senate Republican Caucus, the Senate Executive Appointments Committee has repeatedly failed to take up the nine pending appointees since 2019.

In March, Pritzker withdrew the nine appointments and reappointed them to reset their appointments in the absence of the committee acting within a legislative legal timeline.

Senate Republicans cried foul, claiming the four appointees sat on the board without approval for more than two years, making major decisions without proper Senate vetting.

Sen. Laura Murphy, D-Des Plaines, chairs the Executive Appointment Committee and did not return a request for comment.

 

A clean slate

Simmons’ pardon was signed by Pritzker on May 14. Those cases were expunged and are no longer available for review.

When a police officer runs Simmons’ record, his convictions will not show up. The public cannot view his court files. The only version available to the public was included by Simmons in his clemency petition.

Simmons can now legally carry a gun, and he’s free to serve in the full-time, paid public safety officer position he currently holds.

And by several accounts, he’s a changed man.

Included with his petition were letters of support from Brooklyn Police Chief Thomas Jeffery, Brooklyn Village President Vera Glasper-Banks, former Washington Park Fire Chief Charles Schreiber, East Carondelet Police Lt. Rodney Stone and East Carondelet Village Trustee James Brown.

“He has proven himself to me to be an honest, trustworthy, hardworking, caring individual. I would not be writing this letter if I did not truly believe Jerame possessed those qualities and traits,” Dupo Police Chief Kevin Smith wrote. 

Simmons trained with a K-9 officer, searched for missing kids, and started a Boy Scout Police Explorer program. He received First Responder, Firefighter Chief, Police Safety Commissions and University of Illinois and Federal Emergency Management Association certificates.

He served as the director of the Public Safety Department of Emergency Services for East Carondelet – where his father was the longtime mayor – in 2005. He volunteered with Golden Garden Fire Department, Valmeyer Fire Department, and East Carondelet Fire Department. He was acting fire chief for the Brooklyn Fire Protection District.  

In the ideal clemency petition, according to Love, the person accepts responsibility for the criminal conduct and shows how they have changed by doing good work in the community.

A little bit of influence doesn’t hurt, she added. She encourages clients who have connections to use them to support their bids for clemency.

Acts of community service are also important factors for the PRB and the governor to consider, Love said.

Abudayyeh, the governor’s spokesperson, specifically pointed to the letters of community support when it came to the governor’s decision to pardon Simmons.

 

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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