Obama Pardons Russell James Dixon, Reformed Moonshiner

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

The story of Russell James Dixon, one of nine people pardoned by President Obama Friday, is a hard-luck tale borne of poverty in rural Georgia -- with redemption achieved through work, family and church -- not to mention frequent coon hunts with his grandchildren.

Dixon has no contacts in Washington and used no lawyers to win his pardon. He is unknown outside his small town of 2,000 people. His daughter helped him fill out his pardon papers. His crime, 50 years ago, wasn't a violent one: he made moonshine. His preacher, local banker and the Rabun County sheriff vouched for his character.

"I wanted to clear my name, before I die, and have a clean record," said Dixon, who turns 73 next Tuesday. "I figured I wouldn't ever get it done."

And there also is this: Dixon likes to hunt for coon and deer with his "grandyoung-uns," as he calls them. He thought someday he might like to buy a new shotgun, which he couldn't do with a felony conviction.

He is in the first group of people pardoned by Mr. Obama, who received hundreds of requests. And experts say he is typical of modern-day presidential pardons.

"It's a pattern. That certainly is who George W. Bush pardoned. Of the 189 pardons Bush did, I don't think there were more than a handful who were folks of any stature or consequence," said pardon attorney Margaret Love. "This is the kind of typical, ordinary, bread-and-butter crime that presidential pardoning has always been about."

Dixon's bread-and-butter crime was moonshining in hardscrabble Rabun County, up in the most northeastern corner of Georgia. He was convicted and sentenced to two years probation in 1960.

"When I was a young-un, that was all that was done in this county," Dixon said. "There wasn't no place to work or nothing else. You about had to make it to make a living."

Dixon says he was caught a couple times, but continued on with his business. But when he was in his early twenties, the feds moved in, busted up his distillery and arrested him.

In the 50 years since his conviction, Dixon has never had another run-in with the law.

"I never done nothing but worked after 1960," Dixon said. "I got saved, joined the church, never fooled with no more liquor since that. I've lived the good life since then."

After his arrest, Dixon got a job in the maintenance department at Burlington Carpet Mill, and later at Fruit of the Loom. He married and had two daughters, both of whom still live in Rabun County.

"I worked, and I go to the church and I hunt -- that's mostly all I ever done," Dixon said. "I fish some with my grandyoung-uns."

It was the hunting that helped spur him to seek a pardon.

"I hunt a lot. I've got a bunch of grandyoung-uns I coon hunt and deer hunt with, and I can't even get a (new) gun. I wanted my name cleared--if I ever needed a gun. I hunt with 'em all the time. I couldn't buy a shot gun or nothing."

Dixon said the pardon office called him just after lunch with the news -- a birthday present four days early.

"It is very important to have your name cleared," he said. "It probably don't do you no good and help you no way, but it make you feel good to know you cleared all your things you've been into. I feel good to have my name and record cleared against me."