By Ralph Ellis, Janet DiGiacomo and Faith Karimi
(CNN) — Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on Friday pardoned Rene Lima-Marin, a convicted armed robber who won the sympathy of immigrant groups and politicians by turning his life around after he was mistakenly released from prison.
“The case of Rene Lima-Marin presents an extraordinary set of facts,” the governor said. “Mr. Lima-Marin committed serious crimes when he was much younger, and I believe he was justly convicted and punished for those crimes. To the extent rehabilitation is a goal of imprisonment, Mr. Lima-Marin appears to have achieved it.”
But Lima-Marin is still behind bars.
Agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement took him into custody a few days ago. Hickenlooper’s pardon does not affect a 2000 removal order from an immigration judge, ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok said.
But Lima-Marin’s immigration lawyer hopes the pardon will make a difference.
“Rene’s immigration fight is still not over,” Hans Meyer’s office said. “We still have critical and immediate work to do to prevent his deportation and reunite him with his family.
“We hope that ICE will work with us to release Rene from custody and allow us to reopen his immigration case, restore his lawful permanent status, and reunite (him) with his family. Thanks to this important step by the governor, we are one step closer to reuniting Rene with his wife and children.”
There is no timetable on when a federal judge could determine his removal, Rusnok said.
It’s possible, he said, that an order of supervision could be issued instead. That would require Lima-Marin to report to ICE on a periodic basis and allow him to stay in the country.
Lima-Marin is married with two children — one in elementary school, the other in middle school, his lawyers said Thursday.
He came to the United States when he was 1 year old as part of the Mariel boatlift, the lawyers said.
Lima-Marin was sentenced to 98 years for robbing two video stores in 1998.
In 2008, he was mistakenly released because of a paperwork error that said his sentences were to be served concurrently, instead of consecutively. He was rearrested in 2014, when authorities realized the mistake.
In the six years he was free, he found a job, got married, started a family, and bought a home, said one of his lawyers, Kimberly Diego. “His case was unique in that sense,” she said. “Not all people who are rehabilitated behave that way.”
‘Asset to society’
In a 165-page decision this week, Arapahoe County District Court Judge Carlos Samour Jr. ordered him to be released from prison.
“It would be utterly unjust to compel Lima-Marin, at this juncture, to serve the rest of his extremely long sentence,” he wrote.
Lima-Marin is an “asset to society” and an “outstanding citizen” who worked with young people and encouraged them to make good decisions, according to the judge’s ruling.
Lima-Marin started his prison term in April 2000, after being found guilty of multiple counts of kidnapping, burglary, aggravated robbery and use of a deadly weapon during commission of a crime.
While a gun was used in the break-ins, no shots were fired and no one was injured, according to the judge.
Lima-Marin seemed on the cusp of freedom this week when the judge’s order was put into effect, but before he could walk out of the Colorado Department of Corrections, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement took him into custody.
Lima-Marin’s wife, Jasmine, speaking Friday at a news conference, said the turn of events was very unexpected.
“We were pretty much preparing for a celebration that we’d been waiting for over three years,” she said. “To have this happen, we just kind of feel like, for some reason, they want to keep our family apart.”
‘Case for redemption’
Lima-Marin’s complicated case drew heavy media attention in Colorado and there was widespread support for letting him out of prison.
The Colorado House of Representatives, for instance, approved a resolution last month urging the governor to grant clemency to Lima-Marin.
“Rene’s case is a study in the case for redemption and for justice and fairness, particularly in our criminal justice system,” Meyer said at a Friday news conference.
“It’s also a story about our state courts, and our state justice system making one decision after years of litigation, agreeing that the just, the right, the constitutional thing is to reunite him with his family. And having ICE making the exact opposite decision in the 11th hour.”
Meyer said it will be a miscarriage of justice if Lima-Marin is deported to Cuba, a country he barely knows.
Governor’s pardon questioned
But 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler maintains Hickenlooper circumvented the law when he pardoned Lima-Marin.
Brauchler said Lima-Marin only applied for a commutation of his sentence, not for a pardon, as required by law. Brauchler also said Hickenlooper made “no reasonable effort” to contact the judge who sentenced Lima-Marin for input, which the law also requires.
A statement from Brauchler’s office said the prosecutor doesn’t oppose the commutation of Lima-Marin’s sentence and doesn’t believe he should be deported. But, “I do not believe that Lima-Marin deserves to skip over the clemency and pardon procedures dozens of others have endured,” Brauchler said in statement.
“The governor may exercise his discretion to pardon whomever he wants for whatever reasons he deems best, but only as the law permits. The law has requirements. The governor failed to meet those requirements,” Brauchler said.
In his statement on Lima-Marin’s pardon, Hickenlooper said the “extraordinary circumstances of this case and Mr. Lima-Marin’s demonstrated ability to live successfully in the community … it would be unjust for Mr. Lima-Marin to suffer further consequences for his convictions.”
CNN’s Tony Marco, Sara Weisfeldt and Chandrika Narayan contributed to this report.