With each new year, we welcome fresh starts and second chances. But sometimes, wiping the slate clean is not the right thing to do.
Actor Mark Wahlberg has petitioned Massachusetts for a pardon of violent racial assaults he committed as a teenager. I prosecuted Wahlberg for his actions 26 years ago when I was an assistant attorney general. Now, as a private citizen, I see no reason why that history should be erased from the public record through a pardon. While private acts of reconciliation and forgiveness can be an important part of our shared racial history, that history should never be erased.
Wahlberg made his mark in Boston long before he became famous. He first came to the attention of the attorney general’s office in 1986 when Boston was still under court order to desegregate its public school system and racial tension was high.
On a Sunday afternoon, Jesse Coleman, a 12-year-old African-American boy, was walking on Savin Hill Beach when Wahlberg and his buddies began chasing him, hurling rocks and yelling racial epithets. When Jesse returned to the beach the next day on a school field trip, Wahlberg was there again with an even bigger gang, hurling rocks and more racial epithets at Jesse’s class, injuring two of the students.
The harm inflicted by racial harassment extends far beyond individual victims — it sends ripples of fear throughout entire communities. This case was no exception. But Wahlberg was not criminally prosecuted for his actions on Savin Hill Beach. Instead, we secured a civil rights injunction — a court order — that essentially amounted to a stern warning: if you do this again, you will go to prison.
In the 13 years I served in the attorney general’s office, I recall only one instance of a defendant violating a civil rights injunction — Mark Wahlberg. His attack on Thanh Lam and Hoa Trinh showed the same tendency toward serial acts of racial violence. The two men had no connection except for the fact that they were both Vietnamese. Wahlberg’s repeated racial epithets revealed an equally racist motivation albeit toward a different class – making clear that bigotry harbors no boundaries. But this time, Wahlberg was even more violent, breaking a five-foot pole over Thanh Lam’s head and punching Hoa Trinh to the ground. For this, he served 45 days in prison.
Thanh Lam and Hoa Trinh immigrated to Boston after the Vietnam war, believing in this country’s ideals. Wahlberg’s actions shattered their very sense of themselves, and of the city and country they now called home. But after the case was concluded, one of them told me, “In this country, justice is possible.”
I’m glad Mark Wahlberg has turned his life around. I’ve read that Hoa Trinh has forgiven him. But a public pardon is an extraordinary public act, requiring extraordinary circumstances because it essentially eliminates all effects of having ever been convicted. It is reserved to those who demonstrate “extraordinary contributions to society,” requiring “extensive service to others performed, in part, as a means of restoring community and making amends.” On this, I am not sold.
First, Wahlberg has never acknowledged the racial nature of his crimes. Even his pardon petition describes his serial pattern of racist violence as a “single episode” that took place while he was “under the influence of alcohol and narcotics.” For a community that continues to confront racism and hate crime, we need acknowledgment and leadership, not denial.
And while the $9.6 million he has raised over the 14 year lifetime of the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation — $2.5 million of which made its way to our community — has undoubtedly done some good, I question whether that truly is “extraordinary” for someone who earned $32 million last year and who has a net worth of at least $200 million.
Lastly and most importantly, Wahlberg’s status as a “role model to troubled youth” would not be helped by a public pardon, as he claims. In fact, a formal public pardon would highlight all too clearly that if you are white and a movie star, a different standard applies. Is that really what Wahlberg wants?
A larger public policy question is also at stake: what types of crime do we collectively forgive and expunge from the record? History tells us, again and again, that when it comes to hate crimes, forgetting is not the right path. Truth and reconciliation are all important in moving forward — but not a public wiping of the record. Not now when hate crime remains so high in Boston; not now when tension remains acute over the unpunished killings of black men at the hands of unaccountable white men. And frankly, not ever. Not in our name. Please.
Judith Beals served in the civil rights division under Attorney Generals Jim Shannon and Scott Harshbarger. She is currently a resident fellow at Harvard Divinity School.