Colorado's governor on Friday pardoned a Cuban immigrant for an armed robbery he committed 19 years ago in an effort stave off the man's deportation after immigration authorities detained him following a judge's ruling that he should no longer be imprisoned.
The pardon from Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, was the latest twist in the saga of Rene Lima-Marin, 38. He came to the U.S. as a toddler as part of the 1980 Mariel boat lift from Cuba and had legal residency until it was revoked following his 2000 criminal conviction. Lima-Marin was sentenced to 98 years in prison for the robbery. But he was mistakenly paroled from Colorado state prison in 2008.
Lima-Marin married, had a child and got a steady job installing glass before state authorities realized their mistake in 2014 and sent him back for the remainder of his 98-year prison sentence.
A Colorado judge earlier this week ordered Lima-Marin released from state prison, saying it would be "draconian" to keep him incarcerated. But before he could return to his family, immigration authorities picked him up, citing a still-active deportation order from 2000. His lawyers said a pardon was his only chance to stave off deportation.
Lima-Marin's case has become a bipartisan cause celebre in Colorado, as 98 members of the state Assembly, Democrats and Republicans, called on Hickenlooper to grant him clemency. Though the legal roots of Lima-Marin's deportation order stretch back to actions of the Obama administrations, his detention comes as the Trump administration has moved aggressively to speed up deportations, sometimes sparking clashes with local officials.
"This was a question of justice," Hickenlooper told an afternoon news conference. "This was a pretty clear example of someone who's done all the work necessary to earn a second chance."
It's unclear whether the governor's action will be enough to stop Lima-Marin's deportation.
"I'm not a lawyer," Hickenlooper said when asked whether the pardon would be enough.
District Attorney George Brauchler, whose office prosecuted Lima-Marin, said Hickenlooper did not give prosecutors time to review the pardon application as required by state law.
"The hasty decision to ignore state law was made seemingly to skirt federal law, and that is not an appropriate use of the governor's pardon power," said Brauchler, who is running for governor.
Carl Rusnok, a spokesman for ICE, indicated that Hickenlooper's pardon would not be enough to stop the deportation.
"Rene Michael Lima Marin currently has final orders of removal from a federal immigration judge," he said in a statement.
Hans Meyer, Lima-Marin's lawyer, said he'd file motions to vacate that order.
"We're incredibly grateful to the governor for a just and fair solution," he said. "This is a tremendous first step."
But Jason Kasperek, the assistant manager at a Blockbuster video store that Lima-Marin and an accomplice robbed in 1998, said Lima-Marin should be back in prison.
"I just think that it's scandalous how he used the system," Kasperek said of Lima-Marin, recalling how the robbers held a rifle to his head as they forced him to open the store safe. "I think it's completely ridiculous. It's unjust for all victims who have been involved in it."
The Blockbuster was one of two video stores that Lima-Marin and his accomplice Michael Clifton robbed. They were convicted on multiple robbery, kidnapping and burglary counts. Clifton is still in prison, serving his 98-year sentence.
This is not Lima-Marin's first time in immigration detention. Though Trump has ordered immigration authorities to step up their enforcement of deportation orders, Lima-Marin's legal jeopardy actually stems from changes made by Obama.
After his 2008 parole, immigration authorities held Lima-Marin for 180 days. But at the time, Cuba would not accept any additional people who had arrived on the Mariel boat lift as deportees. As a result, Lima-Marin was released. He continued to check in with immigration authorities regularly, said his wife, Jasmine.
But when Obama in January ended the "wet foot-dry foot" policy that had protected Cuban immigrants who arrived from the island, it opened the door to additional Cubans from the Mariel boat lift to be deported.