Doug Zwank considers the fate of Eric Pizer and thinks, “That could have been me.”
Like Pizer, Zwank is a combat veteran and former corporal in the Marine Corps. And like Pizer, he narrowly escaped death while serving his country overseas.
After returning from Vietnam, Zwank started what would become a long career in law enforcement, first as a special agent for the state Department of Justice, then later training fellow officers at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia. He also worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and served as mayor of Middleton for four years.
But in 1968, when he returned from combat to attend UW-Madison, Zwank was just another angry veteran, traumatized by the deaths of his friends and comrades and trying to unlearn the instincts that had kept him alive at war. He got into fights, Zwank said, but was never arrested.
“It was a time when it wouldn’t take much to haul off and hit somebody,” Zwank recalled.
That’s why Zwank believes it’s a “terrible injustice” that Gov. Scott Walker refuses to pardon Pizer, a decorated Iraq War veteran seeking relief from a felony conviction he received for a fight that happened just days after he returned to Wisconsin from his second combat tour.
Walker said he had no plans to issue pardons while in office.
Four dozen people, including Zwank, have sent emails and letters to Walker, urging him to pardon Pizer, who turns 33 on Tuesday. Just one writer said Pizer should not be given leniency.
Many of those petitioning the governor are veterans, and many are staunch supporters of the Republican governor. Some questioned whether politics was getting in the way of compassion.
Among them was Jeff Engstrom, who attached a photo of himself and his wife attending a Walker campaign event.
“I’ve been processing all the information to the best of my ability and I must tell you that I don’t understand your position,” Engstrom wrote, adding, “I submit Eric Pizer is a classic example of why the power to pardon exists.”
Another Walker supporter, Stan Updike, a member of the Wisconsin Air National Guard from Boscobel, made a similar plea.
“I know your view on pardons,” Updike wrote. “I know you stand strong, that’s why you got my vote, twice. But this issue needs to be addressed.”
Pizer is looking for relief from the felony conviction after he broke a man’s nose in a fight in Boscobel just days after he returned from Iraq in 2004. Pizer said the punch was a reflex that occurred after the victim came at him from the side — one he deeply regrets.
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In the 10 years since he came home, Pizer has earned an associate’s degree in criminal justice with hopes of becoming a police officer. But as a felon, Pizer is prohibited from carrying a gun. He can’t be a cop.
That goal is on hold while Pizer works as a piano mover and at Menards to support himself and his preschool son, Xander.
Walker has refused to issue any pardons, saying they undermine the criminal justice system.
“Early in his administration, Governor Walker made the decision not to issue pardons,” said his spokeswoman, Laurel Patrick. “The criminal justice system has a process by which, if someone’s innocent, they can be granted a change in their sentence through the court system.”
Walker’s main Democratic challenger, Mary Burke, said if elected, she would revive the board that makes recommendations to the governor on pardons. The state Constitution gives only the governor the power to pardon.
Over the past 35 years, Wisconsin governors, both Republicans and Democrats, have issued 986 pardons, according to the Secretary of State’s office, which tracks pardon grants.
Walker supporter Ron Kolenc, of Sheboygan, urged the governor to reconsider his stance.
“It’s the right thing to do morally, ethically and politically,” Kolenc wrote. “I voted for you and I am a supporter of most of your views and actions but on your ‘no pardons no matter what’ position, I strongly disagree.”
A retired police officer shot in the line of duty in 1997 also urged Walker to use his pardon power.
“As a city of Madison police officer, in my 20 years of service, I had the opportunity to give many second chances to people who just needed someone to give them a break for doing something incredibly stupid while in the heat of passion,” Andrew Garcia wrote.
“In many cases, these individuals took that second chance and kept a clean record, becoming model citizens.”
He noted Walker’s unique power to do that for Pizer.
“There are rare times,” Garcia wrote, “when righting an injustice can only be corrected by you.”
Pizer said he’s encouraged by all the support but resigned to the likelihood that Walker will not change his mind.
“I’m to the point where I think my only hope is for Walker to lose the election,” Pizer said. “So far there isn’t a single person who can do anything about it, other than Gov. Walker.”