His voicemail was full of messages and his phone kept ringing. Everyone wanted to talk to Abraham Bolden the day the White House gave him the news he waited 52 years to hear.
The nation’s first Black White House Secret Service agent on April 26, had received a presidential pardon for a federal crime he did not commit in 1964.
For 52 years, Bolden was prohibited from voting even as a free man. He couldn’t serve on a jury or run for state or local office. With the stroke of a pen that all came to end when President Joe Biden announced on April 26 that Bolden had finally been pardoned. The civil liberties that were taken away from Bolden five decades ago have been restored to the 87-year-old man who made Black America proud before Martin Luther King Jr. was a household name.
As Bolden stands as a forgiven soul, he still has a stain that will remain with him for the rest of his life. Amid the congratulatory messages and news interviews, Bolden still has a criminal record. It will remain with Bolden in his last years on earth. And it will stay with Bolden long after he’s gone. If nothing is done, Bolden’s storied legacy will include a criminal record forever.
It’s a reality that makes Bolden’s recent presidential pardon bittersweet and an injustice that few lawyers or politicians to this day are reluctant to address. The biggest challenge is that there is no federal law or statue that allows one to expunge a federal crime conviction from their record. The only hope of expunging a federal crime would come from a sitting president to issue an executive order. It’s a move that has never been done before.
That makes Bolden’s problems far from being over. Even while he yearns to rest in his golden years, he still has the biggest hurdle to overcome in clearing his name and reputation. But at 87 years old, he faces an uphill battle that requires more endurance and strength that he may not have.
On Monday, May 9, Roosevelt Wilson, a longtime friend who spent years trying to get Bolden a presidential pardon launched a new campaign. Wilson sent President Biden a letter asking that he issue an executive order to expunge Bolden’s wrongful bribery conviction that ended his budding career and sent him to prison. It’s an effort that Wilson believes is the last hope to vindicate Bolden on a level that a presidential pardon cannot achieve. But even that attempt has a slim chance because sitting presidents do not have authority to expunge a pardoned individual’s criminal record. President Biden’s pardoning Bolden may be the best he could do for him.
To Wilson, an expungement would be unprecedented, but it would also justify clearing an innocent and righteous man who should have never had a criminal record in the first place.
In the letter to President Biden, Wilson says Thank you for pardoning Abraham Bolden, but it means nothing if this honorable man must live the rest of his life with a criminal record. As a lifelong supporter who believes in his innocence, I urge you to take the final steps to completely exonerate Mr. Bolden by issuing an executive order to expunge Mr. Bolden’s criminal record. Since there’s not a federal law or statue to expunge the record of a person charged with a federal offense, an executive order is warranted.
In addition to an executive order to clear his criminal record, Wilson asks Biden to award Bolden the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest honor awarded to a civilian, along with the Congressional Gold Medal.
Wilson in the letter also reminds Biden that his presidential pardon is not enough to address the pain and injustice Bolden has suffered because of the wrongful conviction.
“While this criminal record perpetuates an injustice that should have never happened, it also makes the presidential pardon hollow and, in a sense, worthless. After five decades of living as a wrongfully convicted man, America owes Mr. Bolden a full and just vindication that includes a clean record and a Presidential Medal of Freedom for his courage to speak truth to power.
In 1960, Bolden became a member of the United States Secret Service. In 1961, he was given a temporary assignment to guard President Kennedy during an event with Mayor Richard J. Daley at Chicago’s McCormick Place. Impressed with his work, President John F. Kennedy, invited Bolden to join his White House detail as the first Black Secret Service agent to protect the president.
But on May 12, 1964, Bolden was accused of and charged with attempting to sell a secret government file to Joseph Spagnoli, Jr., in exchange for $50,000. Spagnoli was named as the head of a counterfeiting ring.
Days after his arrest, Bolden called a press conference at his home in Auburn Gresham to publicly accuse the government of trying to frame him after he spoke out against fellow agents who allegedly drank heavily before and after tours of President Kennedy’s summer home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Bolden also accused the White House and Secret Service of not doing enough to protect President Kennedy before he was assassinated in Dallas in 1963.
During Bolden’s trial in federal court in 1964, suspicions grew after Judge Sam Perry told jurors before they began deliberations that in his opinion, Bolden was guilty on three counts of bribery. That trial ended in a hung jury after Anna B. Hightower, the only Black juror, refused to find him guilty. After the mistrial, Hightower told ABC 7 Chicago that anybody can see the government set him up.
Determined to convict Bolden, prosecutors brought in a new, all-white jury for the second trial. In his book, Echo of Dealy Plaza: The True Story of the First African American on the White House Secret Service Detail and His Quest for Justice After the Assassination of JFK, Bolden said Judge Perry and federal agents barred him and his attorney, George C. Howard, a fraternity brother from Lincoln University out of the building. While they were outside, Judge Perry reportedly told the all-white jury that they must convict Bolden on bribery charges.
On August 12, 1964, just over a month after the mistrial, Bolden was found guilty of accepting a bribe and sentenced to six years in prison. He was also fired from the Secret Service that same month.
Bolden served over three years in prison and more than two years on probation.
The copy of the government file Bolden allegedly tried to sell Spagnoli was never found. Five months after Bolden’s trial and sentencing, Spagnoli was found guilty on counterfeiting charges and sentenced to fifteen years. During his trial, Spagnoli said his livelihood was gambling, that he had falsely testified in Bolden’s trial.
In 1965 Bolden lost his appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. In 1995, Bolden represented himself before the U.S. Supreme Court where he tried to get his conviction expunged. The Supreme Court denied his appeal saying that the court had no jurisdiction to review and grant his request and that Bolden had no more options after completing his sentence.
Bolden said he didn’t have any money to get a lawyer. He said he wrote letters and called the NAACP, CORE and many Black organizations for legal help but many never responded to his request.
“I felt so alone and abandoned by my own people,” Bolden told the Crusader. “That really hurt a lot.
Wilson said many lawyers and politicians were too afraid to support Bolden because of the time period and the allegations against the government during Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.
When President Biden expunged Bolden on April 26, some news outlets reported that it cleared Bolden’s criminal record. But according to the U.S. Department of Justice, a pardon “is an expression of the President’s forgiveness and ordinarily is granted in recognition of the applicant’s acceptance of responsibility for the crime and established good conduct for a significant period of time after conviction or completion of sentence. It does not signify innocence. It does, however, remove civil disabilities – e.g., restrictions on the right to vote, hold state or local office, or sit on a jury – imposed because of the conviction for which pardon is sought, and should lessen the stigma arising from the conviction.”
On the same website, the U.S. Justice Department on its website also says that a presidential pardon does not erase the federal conviction of which the pardon was granted.
“Expungement is a judicial remedy that is rarely granted by the court and cannot be granted within the Department of Justice or by the President. Please also be aware that if you were to be granted a presidential pardon, the pardoned offense would not be removed from your criminal record. Instead, both the federal conviction as well as the pardon would both appear on your record. However, a pardon will facilitate removal of legal disabilities imposed because of the conviction and should lessen to some extent the stigma arising from the conviction.”
Cherese Williams, an independent chief clemency specialist who is part of Bolden’s legal team, has handled clemency and pardon cases for 13 years. She said she has never seen an individual’s criminal record on the federal level expunged after they were pardoned.
“A statute would have to be created and the language would have to be changed for that to happen.”