2021 Presidential Pardon
Free at Last, Justice at Last, Equal at Last
- Today, 11/2/2021, 2 pm PST, marks the 10 year anniversary of my release from prison.
- In January 2021, five years after I applied, the President of the United States granted me a full and unconditional presidential pardon.
- To read the full article click here
The road to get here was long, taxing, and at times hopeless. Life, especially the decade-long recovery from this colossal derailment was an obstacle course. How did I even end up here? In the 1990s I left a post-war Iran and came to the US alone when I was 18 on the promise of the American dream and to have a shot at a better life. I tried my very best and in many ways excelled in academics, graduating from UC Berkeley with a double major and from Princeton with a Ph.D.
No family is simple, each has its challenges. So did mine. While in graduate school, I went back and forth to Iran to stand up for my mother, for her rights as a human being, for my family, for what was just.
After graduating in 2005, I got a job at a prestigious firm, McKinsey & Company in New York City.
By year-end in 2009, my American dream was within reach: I was a law-abiding citizen, immigrated and integrated into the US, championed the American way of life, achieved educational milestones, had a compelling job at a top firm, in a relationship with a woman I adored, did all I could to secure a path for my mother and our family.
But then on Jan 7th, 2010, I saw my world crash and crumble. I was arrested. Indicted. Held in maximum and high-security prisons. I was denied bail. Lost at trial. And the legal ordeal dragged on with me locked up in prison for nearly 2 years. Until Oct 24th, 2011 when I won my case on appeal. I was released from prison on Nov 2nd, 2011.
Federal district judge Paul A. Engelmayer was one supportive voice through the chaos. He presided at my resentencing on July 24th, 2012 to correct the record. In that session, Judge Engelmayer went out of his way to point out that the 22 months I had spent in prison were “far longer than any prison term I would have imposed”. He described me as “a loyal and loving son and brother, a devoted friend and honorable man, a kind man and fantastically hard-working and talented man, even brilliant, who has much to contribute and much that is productive to contribute to his community and his world.” Thank you Judge Engelmayer.
So, I won my case on appeal; how do I get my life back? The 10 years since my release from prison marked a long exhaustive path to recover from an ordeal so grave and so difficult to shake off; so tough to put into words. So many rejections: from hundreds of jobs I applied to, from 11 of 12 schools I applied to, for a place to live where checking the box on the application for background check would disqualify me, from credit card companies that saw me as not creditworthy, from banks that reserved their rights to not open an account, from some of my former friends, classmates, and colleagues to whom I was toxic. So many doors closed. So many hopeless dead ends. And then there were many others who stood by me: writing to defend me and keep my spirit alive, coming to prison, vouching for me, opening up opportunities for me, hearing me, doing all they could to keep me from drowning. I lost my only remaining grandparent – my family had kept my story from her but we lost her before I got a chance to tell her I was out, my mother suffered a debilitating brain stroke. The journey since 2010 has aged my heart and consumed my mind. I have greyed.
There is so much we do so well in this country. There is so much room for us to do better on criminal justice (more in my TED week video). I’ll continue to advocate for my cause where I can make a difference. I’ve spoken to law school students, bar associations, prosecutors, and ordinary citizens with the power to create change in our criminal justice system.
For my path, I knew I needed one break. And that break would lead to another. If I were relentlessly persistent and ready, I believed my chance would come.
Despite winning on appeal an insurmountable obstacle was the existence of a criminal record in my background pushing me into a resigned state across:
- A career path: job application & background checks that were impossible to pass and kept me out of the workforce with FBI and state law enforcement directories containing my conviction records, effectively making my candidacy an impossibility for many jobs, jobs for which I had spent many years of higher education preparing and training. For some I could not even sit to take the certification exams, let alone apply.
- Access to the financial system: exclusion from the banking and financial system; where for years opening and keeping open a bank account or credit card turned into a whirlwind; even when I succeed in opening an account I would often get that ominous letter informing me that my account was being closed based on the bank’s ‘standard audit’ of its customer’s risk profiles.
- Housing: rental applications for housing that were most often a hopeless pursuit: which landlord would choose a tenant with a criminal background and poor credit over others?
- Rights: cementing my status as a second-class citizen, where beyond the practical limitations above, I had lost the right to participate, to vote, be on a jury, and with a criminal background it was legal to discriminate against me.
Photos left to right: 1. 2009 Top of the world, 2. 2011 near release from prison, 3. Today
These realities had concrete adverse consequences that perpetuated glass ceilings, walls, and corridors; marginalizing me professionally, socially, and economically. A long shot with a small chance, a presidential pardon was the only real way to get me my life back, the chance to be equal again.
A presidential pardon would also be closure. A reset to have the same rights as any other citizen, to be equal to others once again.
I started working on it in 2015. Reading about presidential pardons, asking anyone who could tell me more. It soon became clear that this would be an undertaking unlike anything I had ever done. We had to put together a compelling case, why me, why now, and justify why a pardon could make a material difference in my ability to contribute and be a productive member of society. After all, America had also invested in me, my education and my ability to give back. My incredible attorneys Tai Park and Eyal Dror offered their time pro bono to work alongside me on the legal aspects of putting the presidential pardon application together. We submitted the most compelling application we could muster, over 200 pages. Over two dozen close friends volunteered to submit character affidavits and letters on my behalf to help make the case. Once submitted, I realized I could not wait. I had to reach out to congressional representatives and anyone who would be in a position to hear my case and advance the pardon. Otherwise, it would be ignored. I did not have political connections or ties. Far from it. I was also not a donor. And no one in this process in or out of Washington DC had a reason to hear me. But I was not deterred. I consider it one of the most difficult things I have taken on in my life: to start one at a time and convince hundreds of strangers of the merits of my case; who would then introduce me to the next person and the next. Eventually, fourteen (14) Members of Congress, including U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein and nine Representatives from my home state of California, wrote to the White House asking for full and fair consideration of my presidential pardon application.
But years went by with no news or update on the pardon application.
Through the years since the win on appeal and release, and after my third graduate degree, I went from contract job to contract job. Advocated for criminal justice reform. One small opportunity led to another and eventually I was able to get a full-time job in a field not directly related yet still applicable to my many years of studies and training in analytical thinking, problem-solving, management and finance. That full-time job at a startup over years turned into more and more responsibility as the company grew to over 400 employees and was acquired for $500M. I went on to become CFO of the company.
On January 19th, 2021—his last day in office—, President Donald J. Trump granted me a full and unconditional pardon:
President Trump granted a full pardon to Dr. Mahmoud Reza Banki. This pardon is supported by many elected officials of stature, including the late Representative John Lewis, Senator Diane Feinstein, and other Members of Congress. Dr. Banki is an Iranian American citizen who came to the United States when he was 18 years old. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, before obtaining a Ph.D. from Princeton University and an MBA from the University of California, Los Angeles. In 2010 Dr. Banki was charged with monetary violations of Iranian sanctions and making false statements. The charges related to sanctions violations were subsequently overturned by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. However, the felony charges for making false statements have prevented Dr. Banki from resuming a full life. In the years since his conviction, Dr. Banki has dedicated himself to his community and maintained a sincere love and respect for the United States.
When I saw my name on the pardoned list, around midnight on that day, I was in shock and disbelief. Had this really happened? Would someone kick me to say wake up, it’s a dream. I ran through the full gamut of emotions for the next 24 hours. Joy at the outcome. Relief for justice at last. Sadness of the utter pain, distress, and hopelessness throughout. Exhaustion of the journey. And ultimately thankful to have a grave weight off my shoulders. To now be equal.
I am forever grateful. I will bring the best in me, to make the most of the moment and opportunity; for once again I am created equal with the same unalienable rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.
It is with a heart full of gratitude to all who have supported and stood by me, that I turn the page. There are too many people to list individually and thank. So many have advocated for me, so many have stood by me, so many came to court and prison to be with me through the journey, so many gave me a shot in interviews and truly heard me. At times total strangers who went out of their way because they somehow believed in me; restoring my faith in humanity. There exist indeed good people who stand for what is right and make a difference.
This isn’t where my story ends, and as I look to the next chapter, if anything, this journey has taught me that we may not know what the future holds. But we can try to shape with the pieces before us, the life we want to live. I look forward to that.
2017 Presidential Pardon
At noon EST on January 20th, an 18-month long continuous effort for a Presidential Pardon from President Obama concluded. I did not succeed in getting a pardon.
- THANK YOU for going far above and beyond and for going out of your way; I know none of you had to do any of this. I am incredibly moved by all these efforts.
- Despite our best efforts, in the end I came up short. We did not get the pardon. I am very sorry for that.
We tried hard; I know I tried my absolute and very best over the last year and a half. We put together a strong and compelling case for justice. 13 congressmen and a senator wrote individual letters to the White House in support of my pardon application; 6 congressmen and a senator wrote a follow-up group letter to the White House. My attorneys Tai Park and Eyal Dror worked on this case pro-bono, tirelessly over the last 18 months. Over two dozen individuals wrote character affidavits on my behalf to supplement our pardon submission. Numerous individuals and organizations championed my cause. Strangers I had never met reached out to me after hearing my story on The Moth or elsewhere to offer support and ask how they could help.
I have been restless especially this last week. When this nightmare began I was 33. I am now 40 and cannot believe I am still fighting to overcome this ordeal; and that I am nowhere close to where I was in life before this; life with felonies can be an exercise in frustration.
As I watched the inauguration processions early morning, as I saw President Obama leave the Oval office for the last time, I felt defeated. I could not help the voice inside me that kept asking: ‘Mr. President, where are the pardons? Where is my pardon?’
Theodore Roosevelt (President from 1902 – 1909) pardoned 668 people. Dwight Eisenhower (President 1953 – 1961) pardoned 1,110. John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford both were President for the less than three years; yet despite this short tenure Kennedy pardoned 472, and Ford 382. Jimmy Carter pardoned 534 over a four-year presidency. Pardon numbers by other two-term presidents: Lyndon Johnson – 960; Richard Nixon – 863; Ronald Reagan – 393; Bill Clinton – 396; George W. Bush – 189; Barack Obama – 212.
After pardoning only 70 individuals during his first seven 7 years of office, President Obama publicly committed in press conferences that he would catch up to his predecessors. This gave me hope and like many others, I believed I had a chance. The President did issue more pardons, 142 in his last year. But not nearly as many as we all hoped. And at least one short of what we wanted. One recent NY Times article captures the surprisingly low number of pardons and the potential drivers.
Earlier, one senior congressional staffer wrote me:
“I want to extend my sympathies. However, I personally feel—myself, not necessarily on behalf of the Congresswoman—that you have much to be proud of. I have never seen or heard of as much support among a diverse group of Members of Congress for a single individual’s case. I can tell that your legwork and diligence is due all credit for that. So instead of sympathies, I should offer congratulations. Hard work in pursuit of justice is never wasted time. Thank you for coming here and shining light on your case. This was a bright spot in the midst of a lot of cynicism for many of us on the Hill.”