WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Wednesday pardoned a former Maryland police officer who served 10 years in prison in a police brutality case after her canine partner attacked a man suspected of burglary.
Stephanie Mohr, a former officer with the Prince George's County Police Department, was among the dozens of people who received clemency from Trump in the waning weeks of his presidency.
Trump has wielded his clemency powers in an unusual way, granting them to several allies, some of whom were convicted in cases tied to the president, and undercutting his own Justice Department in the process.
This week, Trump has issued several dozen clemencies, pardoning his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort; his longtime ally, Roger Stone; his former campaign aide, George Papadopoulos; and his son-in-law's father, Charles Kushner, to name a few.
Trump also stirred controversy by pardoning four Blackwater security guards imprisoned for a mass shooting that killed 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians and wounded 17 others in 2007.
More:Trump pardons former campaign chairman Paul Manafort along with Charles Kushner, other allies
More:Trump pardons Papadopoulos and former Republican members of Congress in raft of clemency grants
For Mohr, who has maintained her innocence, the pardon is a long-awaited closure to a saga that has haunted her for 25 years.
"So many emotions flooding through me. It’s been a long, long, long battle for this. I’m just so grateful," Mohr said after hearing the news of her pardon, her voice breaking.
Mohr said she was traveling with her parents and significant other when they heard the news Wednesday night.
"It's about time. We've gone through a lot," said Mohr's father, Stan Mohr.
Mohr's pardon comes amid a nationwide reckoning on police brutality following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. But Mohr, now 50, said her actions did not amount to police brutality.
"There are issues with police brutality in our country," she said. "I was not a police officer who participated in that."
Mohr's case was the result of a Justice Department civil rights investigation into the Prince George's County Police Department, which had been facing allegations of police brutality.
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Her conviction stems from an incident in 1995 when she was a new canine handler with the department. She was among several police officers who responded to a possible burglary in Takoma Park, Md., just outside of Washington, D.C., where two men were found on the roof of a building. Mohr said the area, at that time, had been experiencing a spate of burglaries.
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Trial testimonies painted different versions of how the incident unfolded.
According to the government's version of events, the two suspects followed orders from police officers, climbed down to the ground with their hands raised and did not try to flee. But after a brief conversation with her training officer, Mohr, without a warning, released her dog, which bit one of the men in the leg as police helicopters circled the area. The two men were also not burglars, but were homeless men sleeping on the roof, according to court documents.
Mohr testified that she repeatedly ordered one of the men to raise his hands, but he didn't, and instead kept them near his waistband. She said she released her dog after one of the men tried to escape, and she acted based on how she was trained.
"My thought process was … you don't know what they're going to do when they come down. They could surrender, they could run – which they did, one tried to – or they could just fight," Mohr said. "My thought process was I have to be prepared … We had no idea about their status. We hadn't approached them, hadn't touched them, hadn't searched them."
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Five years after the incident, the Justice Department launched a civil rights investigation into the Prince George's County Police Department. Mohr and her training officer were each charged with civil rights violation and conspiracy. They were tried twice after a jury could not reach a verdict on all the charges during the first trial.
"The police consciously, deliberately put a police dog on men who were surrendering with their hands up," then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach said during one of the trials, according to the Associated Press. "After that, the officers on the scene adhered to a code of silence that kept them from saying what happened that night."
Dettelbach, who later became a U.S. attorney in Ohio and is now in private practice, did not respond to a request for comment.
It was unclear if the Justice Department recommended Mohr for a pardon, or if the White House consulted with the Office of the Pardon Attorney. The Justice Department said recommendations on pending pardon petitions are confidential. A White House spokesman did not answer questions from USA TODAY about Mohr's petition.
During Mohr's second trial, the government introduced testimony that painted Mohr as a problematic police officer with a history of targeting minorities. One witness, who's Black, testified that Mohr threatened to have her dog come after "your black ass." Mohr testified she does not recognize the witness and has only a vague recollection of the incident.
In her interview with USA TODAY, she said: "That couldn't be further from the truth. I am disgusted and appalled by those … I have never used racially demeaning language in my lifetime."
Mohr was convicted and her training officer was acquitted following a two-week trial. She was sentenced to 120 months in prison.
"She had a very long sentence … I personally think it's harsh, very harsh," said her pardon attorney Margaret Love, who served as the Justice Department's pardon attorney under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. "Somebody who got a harsh sentence might have been bitter about it, but she is not and has not been."
Mohr was released from prison in 2011. She now works as a construction inspector in St. Mary's County in southern Maryland.
While incarcerated, she sought to have her sentence commuted, but the request was denied. In a 2008 letter to the Justice Department in support of her commutation request, the Rev. James G. Kirk, Mohr's pastor, described her as a "conscientious mother" who saw people for what they are, regardless of race or background and without perceived judgments or stereotypes.
Mohr's son, Adam Popielarcheck was only a toddler when she was imprisoned and remembers his father waking him up early in the morning on Saturdays so they can drive to visit Mohr in prison. He said he remembers wondering why they always had to drive several hours to see his mother, why she was always in a brown jumpsuit every time he saw her, or why there were guards every time they visited.