50 Years Ago: Ronald Reagan Pardons Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard with Ronald Reagan in 1982

It’s one of the most legendary origin stories in country music history. Merle Haggard from Bakersfield, California was engaging in a life of petty crime while trying to make it as a guitar player and singer until he committed one petty crime too many, and a judge threw the book at him.

It was Christmas Eve 1957, and while hanging out drunk with a buddy of his named Mickey, Merle decided to break into a local Bakersfield restaurant called Fred and Gene’s Cafe to try and scrounge up some money for his family. Merle and Mickey drove to the restaurant and tried to jimmy the back door, only to find the door was already opened. Darting inside, they started figuring out what to steal when they discovered the restaurant was still open, and full of patrons and employees.

The owner chased the would-be drunken and bungling burglars out the front door, and they jumped in their car and took off down the street. At the first stop sign, a highway patrolman pulled them over. Fearing he was heading to jail, Merle jumped out of the car and sprinted for the train depot so he could hop a freight train out of town, but no trains were running because it was Christmas Eve. The local depot deputy apprehended and arrested Merle.

In the Bakersfield jail on Christmas Day awaiting arraignment, Merle waited for the right moment, and literally walked right out the front door of the jail. This was officially Merle’s fifth escape from jail during his criminal career. When Merle made his way to his older brother Lowell’s house, the police were there waiting in the weeds, threw the cuffs on him, and this time made sure there was no escape.

It wasn’t the severity of the crimes, but Merle’s multiple escapes from custody that made a judge decide to send Merle to California’s most notorious maximum security prison, the big house, San Quentin, where Merle was sentenced to serve up to 15 years. He was transferred to the prison on February 21, 1958. Luckily for Merle and the rest of us, Merle’s stay in San Quentin scared him straight, and after 2 1/2 years of good behavior (and watching Johnny Cash perform at the prison in 1960), Merle was paroled.

Merle remained a convicted criminal though, and even as his country music career took off, his past haunted him, both as an ugly reminder of past transgressions, and also just as a logistical nightmare. When traveling out of the country or in other certain circumstances, Merle had to declare his legal history. But that all changed on March 14th, 1972 when the California Governor Ronald Reagan officially pardoned Merle Ronald Haggard for all past crimes.

Merle Haggard called March 14th, 1972 the second most significant day in his life. The first was the day that his dad died when he was only nine. Friends and family members of Merle who were working on the pardon kept the effort secret from him until it was made official. When he found out, the otherwise reserved country singer was downright euphoric.

“Well, you can imagine yourself, you got this tail hanging on you, and suddenly you don’t have it anymore,” Merle said about the pardon. “It’s just wonderful not to have to walk up and say, ‘Pardon me, before I do this I want to tell you that I’m an ex-convict.’ You have to do that with any sort of legal transaction, while leaving the country, with anything of that nature. All those things went away when Ronald Reagan was kind enough to look at my case and give me a pardon. He didn’t have to do that. He could have just snubbed his nose and went on to lunch.”

And though Merle Haggard’s celebrity status most certainly helped secure the pardon—as did the fact that once he left San Quentin, he put his legal escapades behind him (well, at least mostly)—there actually was a legitimate legal case that Merle had not received proper legal representation, and unfair punishment.

“People who were in a position to examine my case, found that I was improperly convicted and had no representation because I was poor and things of that nature,” Merle recalled. “Twelve [state] supreme court justices and Governor Ronald Reagan found it right to pardon me. God, it meant everything. He gave me a second chance.”

Merle Haggard looked forward to meeting Ronald Reagan personally, and thanking him for the pardon. He got his opportunity ten years later, when Reagan was President of the United States. Reagan invited him to his Sierra Grande Ranch in California in 1982.

It was Merle Haggard’s harrowing upbringing as a poor kid of Okie parents, and his life of petty crime that put such meaning behind songs such as “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” “Branded Man,” “Sing Me Back Home,” and “Mama Tried.” It was Ronald Reagan’s pardon that put him on the path to becoming one of America’s most revered poet laureates, eventually being graced as a Kennedy Center Honors recipient.

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