Critics of Legion support for convicted sex offender call for organization officials to resign

Past state commander says show of support was wrong, and has reignited trauma, fear for rape victim

By: - November 8, 2022 4:00 am
pardons board protest

A group formed to object to the pardon of a convicted sex offender in September, pictured here protesting outside the Nebraska State Capitol, is backing a change in state law to ensure crime victims are notified of such hearings. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Critics of American Legion support of a pardon for a convicted sex offender ramped up their denunciation on Monday, calling for Legion leaders who participated to resign.

Beth Linn, a former state Legion commander from Scottsbluff, said that it was wrong for about 20 Legion members to wear their official Legion caps as a show of support at a State Board of Pardons meeting in September.

Legion caps only for official events

The caps are only intended for official Legion functions, said Linn, who served as state commander in 2016-17 and was the first woman to hold the top leadership post.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts presided over the Nebraska Board of Pardons hearing in September, voting in favor of a pardon for John Arias. The board includes Secretary of State Bob Evnen (at left), who voted against the pardon,  and Attorney General Doug Peterson, who voted for it. (Jazari Kual/Nebraska Examiner)

At the meeting, the Pardons Board voted 2-1 to grant a pardon to John Arias for a violent sexual assault of his estranged wife 29 years ago.

The members of the board — the governor, attorney general and secretary of state — noted the support of the Legion members (who sat as a group in the first two rows of the board’s hearing room) before granting the pardon.

Linn called the Legion display a “dangerous precedence” that swayed the vote and occurred without the knowledge of other Legion members. It should not happen again, she said. 

‘Lost faith’

“We have lost faith in these leaders, and that is unacceptable,” Linn said.

According to the national Legion website, the Legion uniform cap should be worn “by its members only when in attendance at official Legion meetings or ceremonies or as official guests at patriotic or other civil functions or by individuals when officially representing The American Legion on public occasions.”

Linn was among the organizers of a protest of the pardon on Oct. 28 at the State Capitol, in which protesters called on Legion leaders to apologize. Now critics are calling for leaders to immediately resign, and if they don’t, for fellow Legion members to join them at the state Legion’s midyear conference Jan. 13-15 in Norfolk to demand that they step down.

Requests for comment via phone and emails to Don Suchy, the current state department commander, and Dave Salak, the state department adjutant, went unanswered Monday afternoon.

After the Legion’s actions were criticized last month, Suchy defended the show of support, saying that Arias had been a “model citizen” and had worked to help other troubled veterans. Suchy said the wearing of the Legion cap “only indicates the individual wearing the cap is in uniform.”

Harm to victim

The group, “What About Us,” called for the immediate resignation of those two officials, as well as a member of the National Executive Committee and the state chairman of Boys and Girls State.

Linn said no one who attended the Pardons Board meeting should hold any state or national Legion office.

The Legion members did not consider, she said, the harm and fear the pardon created for Arias’ ex-wife, and to three then-young boys — including two sons — who were in the home when Arias repeatedly raped his estranged wife. He threatening her with a knife before tying her to a bed, then later fled with the boys, leaving his wife bound and gagged.

Ex-wife shaken and fearful

The granting of the pardon, which the ex-wife learned of through a Nebraska Examiner article, has left her shaken and fearful, Linn said, and prompted a recurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The ex-wife, Jody Snogren, told the Examiner that she “lived with fear every day” after the assault.

Both Gov. Pete Ricketts and Attorney General Doug Peterson voted in favor of a pardon for Arias, noting that he had not had any repeat crimes since being convicted of first-degree sexual assault in 1993, and was involved in helping other struggling veterans as a volunteer with a veterans treatment court.

Secretary of State Bob Evnen voted “no,” saying he didn’t feel that Arias had come to grips with his crime, which Evnen labeled as serious.

Not calling her ‘a liar’

When asked during the Pardons Board hearing if he disputed that he had committed a rape, Arias responded that he was not going to call his wife “a liar.”

That response enraged members of the What About Us? group, who have said it indicates that Arias has not taken responsibility for his offense.

John Arias
John Arias, a volunteer mentor coordinator, was featured in a Grand Island Independent story for his work with a veterans treatment court in central Nebraska. (Courtesy of Nebraska Judicial Branch)

Arias, in written and oral testimony to the Pardons Board, said he was seeking a pardon to remove “the stigma” of being a convicted sex offender and having his name listed on the state’s official sex offender registry. He said the listing had led to harassment and had blocked him from serving in higher office with the Legion.

As a result of the pardon, Arias’ name has been removed from the sex offense registry. The pardon also restores voting and gun rights for Arias, who lives in Grand Island, but does not remove the crime from state court records.

Guidelines needed

Linn, along with Snogren, have called for better guidelines for the Pardons Board to decide when, and when not, to grant a pardon.

The Pardons Board, according to a 1992 court ruling, “has the unfettered discretion to grant or deny a commutation of a lawfully imposed sentence for any reason or for no reason at all.”

In recent years, the board has been reluctant to grant a pardon to anyone convicted of first-degree murder. That came after a pardon was granted to convicted murderer Laddie Dittrich, which led to his release from prison in 2014. Dittrich was arrested a few months later for molesting a 10-year-old child.

At the September meeting in which Arias was granted a pardon, the Pardons Board rejected the pardon request of an Omaha man who maintains he was wrongly convicted of first-degree murder.

Earnest Jackson, who has spent 22 years in prison, has sought his release after his two co-defendants were deemed not guilty. Jackson was found guilty in two trials, but one co-defendant testified in court that he was the shooter but had acted in self defense and that Jackson was not present.


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