A 68-year-old convicted murderer who was kept in a Nebraska prison for 44 years even after his two accomplices were set free will be home in time for Thanksgiving courtesy of the state's first such pardon in nearly two decades.
Jerry Erving Jr., whose role in the 1964 shooting death of an Omaha bartender consisted of stealing several bottles of booze while fleeing with the gunman and another friend, won favor with the state's Pardon Board after former Nebraska Gov. Charlie Thone took his case pro bono.
"After 44 years of incarceration and an exemplary record, and lauditory statements from the prison officials, I think it's the function of the pardon board to say, 'OK, he's not a threat to society," Thone told ABCNews.com today. "Fairness cried out for equity here."
Thone, a former congressman who served as governor from 1979 to 1983, issued five life sentence commutations while in office. The next two governors gave a total of 14 pardons for capital crimes.
But in the early 1990s, a convicted murderer who was set free after his life sentence was commuted killed again shortly after his release, and subsequent governors "took the attitude that a life sentence is a life sentence. End of story," Thone said.
Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning told ABCNews.com that a driving force in Erving's commutation was the fact that Larry Hall, the man who shot and killed the bartender that night in Omaha, had his sentence commuted in 1983 and was pardoned two years later. Erving sat behind bars for another 16 years.
"It wasn't an easy decision," said Bruning, who sits on the pardon board with Nebraska's current governor and secretary of state. "He took part in a crime that took a man's life."
Erving's most recent request for a commutation was his seventh put before the current pardon board and his 12th overall.
"I think society's attitude toward crime has become harsher," Bruning said. "There isn't a willingness to let this go on in their neighborhood."
Bruning admitted that getting a former governor to represent him helped Erving's case, and that Thone was better able to articulate Erving's argument for release than the others before him. The pardon board also considered, in the midst of a special session to cut the state's budget, that Erving was costing taxpayers $25,000 to $30,000 a year.
But the most compelling piece of evidence, Bruning said, was knowing that Hall and the third participant, Donald Davis Jr., had already been released back into society.
"It has to be a very rare case indeed for us to consider it," Bruning said, adding that the support of Erving's wife was also a factor in their decision. "This case is particularly unique."
Erving was drunk the night he and two others walked into a Omaha bar in 1965 intending to commit robbery. But things got out of hand, and Hall shot the bartender. As the three fled the bar, Erving snatched several bottles of booze and then hopped behind the wheel of the getaway car. He was 24 years old.
His wife, Evelyn Erving -- 18 years old at the time -- remembered how her husband pleaded not guilty.
"He was convinced he didn't kill anybody," she said, adding that he once had served three years in prison for an earlier robbery.