Presidential Pardon for 'Unsung Hero'

Deceased man who helped Israel among 19 pardons and one commutation issued.

December 23, 2008, 3:15 PM

Dec. 23, 2008— -- President Bush Tuesday issued a rare posthumous presidential pardon to a man convicted of arranging the transfer of two converted B-17 "Flying Fortresses" to Israel's defense forces in 1949, one of 19 pardons and one commutation he granted before leaving to spend Christmas at Camp David.

Charles T. Winters, who died in 1984, was convicted of violating the U.S. Neutrality Acts for supplying and assisting the transport of the aircraft to Jews who were working to establish the state of Israel. At the time, the United States banned the sale of weapons to the Middle East.

Winters had personally flown one of the aircraft from Miami to Czechoslovakia, where it was retrofitted for use as a bomber in the Arab-Israeli War.

The aircraft turned out to be the only heavy bombers in the Israeli Air Force, according to Winters' pardon application.

The pardon was granted after Winters' son, Jimi, movie producer Steven Spielberg, 21 members of Congress and others asked Bush to forgive Winters' conviction.

Jimi Winters never knew of his father's imprisonment because once his father was released from prison he resumed a quiet life and never told his son of his past adventures.

Only after Winters' death did his son learn that in 1961 Golda Meir, who was then the Israeli foreign affairs minister before eventually becoming prime minister, had issued a letter of commendation to Winters to express appreciation.

In the letter inviting Winters, who was not Jewish, to the opening of a memorial, Meir wrote, "Your contribution to this magnificent effort of the Jewish people has been acknowledged on many occasions ... all of us who were together in spirit and in force during those fateful years look forward very much to seeing you here."

Jimi Winters Tuesday said, "I'm ecstatic -- my dad died when I was 19, and I never had a chance to give back to him. I'm glad the president saw the importance of this."

Steven Spielberg wrote a letter to Bush and Attorney General Michael Mukasey in August, saying that although he never knew Winters, the man "acted with a great deal of courage to assist the newborn state of Israel." In the letter, the Hollywood legend says Winters is an "unsung hero."

'Man of Great Courage'

Reginald J. Brown, a Wilmer Hale attorney who helped shepherd the application through the Department of Justice, Tuesday said in a statement, "Charles T. Winters was a man of great courage and deep humility and his actions helped support the creation of one of America's greatest friends in the world. Tuesday's decision by President Bush rights a historical wrong and honors Charlie's belief that the creation of the Jewish state was a moral imperative of his time."

Winters is one of 19 other people pardoned Tuesday by the president for crimes ranging from mail fraud to embezzlement to narcotics charges. Bush also commuted the prison sentence of an Iowa man serving a life sentence on drug charges.

Advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums applauded the pardon of Reed Prior, who had been serving a life sentence for selling methamphetamine. In a statement, FAMM founder and president Julie Stewart said Prior, who has been behind bars since 1996, has "overcome his addiction and begun tutoring other inmates and spreading the message to young people that drugs are destructive" and that he and his family will be "eternally grateful for a fresh start.

"There are thousands of individuals like Reed Prior still serving excessive mandatory prison terms for nonviolent offenses," Stewart added, urging Bush to grant more clemencies.

In addition to Winters, the following individuals received pardons:

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