By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
In 1948, Charlie Winters took an unusual step for a Boston-born Protestant businessman: He waded into the bloody struggle for a Jewish state in the Middle East, selling decommissioned B-17 bombers to the Haganah resistance group and even helping to fly one of the planes overseas.
The assistance earned him a federal conviction for violation of the Neutrality Act and made him a hero for many Israelis who have long decried his case as a grave injustice.
Winters, who died in 1984 at age 71 and is buried in a Christian cemetery in Jerusalem, was granted a rare posthumous pardon yesterday by President Bush, nearly half a century after he was convicted and served 18 months in prison.
"I'm elated," said Winters's son, Jimmy, of Miami. "This is an example of a man who did something for his friends that he thought was the right thing to do, and it had nothing to do with race or religion or money."
The forgiveness of Winters was among a holiday list of 19 pardons issued yesterday by Bush, who also commuted the life sentence of a convicted methamphetamine dealer in Iowa. Bush has granted 190 pardons and nine commutations so far, less than half the number granted by Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, the other most recent two-term presidents.
Only one other U.S. president has intentionally given a pardon to a dead man: Clinton granted clemency in 1999 to Henry O. Flipper, the first black graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, who was wrongly accused of embezzling commissary funds. A few others have died unexpectedly during the pardon process, according to experts.
The Winters case brings a close to a little-noticed episode of postwar U.S. history, when Winters and two other Americans were prosecuted for aiding the Jewish resistance in its fight against Arab League nations following the withdrawal of British forces in 1948.
Winters, who ran a business flying fruits and vegetables to the Caribbean, helped transfer two planes to the Israeli air force. He personally flew one of the aircraft from Miami to Czechoslovakia, where it and others were retrofitted for Israel's use as bombers, according to historical accounts. The B-17s were the only heavy bombers in Israel's air force and are widely credited with helping turn the war in its favor.
Winters, who had few resources to fight the charges, pleaded guilty in January 1949 to violating the Neutrality Act and served 18 months in prison.
The others involved in the case -- publisher and radio personality Herman Greenspun and former Army flight engineer Al Schwimmer -- were also convicted but never served prison time. President John F. Kennedy pardoned Greenspun in 1961, and Clinton pardoned Schwimmer in 2001.
Jimmy Winters, who runs a neon sign business, said he did not know about his father's conviction until after his death. "He didn't want his kids to find out he went to prison," said Winters, 44. "He was old-school that way."
Those who appealed to Bush for clemency in the case included filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who called Winters one of the "unsung heroes of America and of Israel" and wrote that a pardon "would be a fitting tribute to his memory and a great blessing to his family."
Reginald Brown, a Washington lawyer involved in the pardon request, said Winters "probably would have been a bit embarrassed about the publicity but grateful that his country saw value in what he did."
P.S. Ruckman Jr., an associate professor of political science at Rock Valley College in Illinois who writes the blog PardonPower.com, said posthumous pardons have traditionally been shunned for a variety of reasons, including the belief that they were effectively an admission of guilt.
But Ruckman said the Flipper and Winters cases could pave the way for more pardon requests on behalf of deceased felons, such as African American boxer Jack Johnson, who was convicted on disputed morality charges in 1913.
Ruckman said the Winters case was particularly strong since two other defendants had already been pardoned and because his role was limited. "My impression was that this was as strong a case as I've ever seen for a posthumous pardon," he said. "He wasn't the mastermind of this thing."
Yesterday's pardon list includes a variety of other crimes, from drug and gun violations to mail and bank fraud. The list does not include any of the high-profile people, such as former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who have been the focus of widespread speculation as Bush pardon candidates.
The White House has said it would not rule out the possibility of more pardons or commutations from Bush before he leaves office on Jan. 20. Clinton came under fire for a flurry of last-minute pardons that included fugitive financier Marc Rich, while Bush's father was criticized for the Christmas Eve pardon of Caspar Weinberger and others accused in the Iran-contra scandal.