After 15 years, Atlanta chaplain has redemption

Portrait of Gwendale Boyd-Willis near her Forest Park home. She had a felony conviction 15 years ago, but since then has turned her life around and is now a chaplain. Pro bono legal services through the Georgia Justice Project helped her get a full pardon in August. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Portrait of Gwendale Boyd-Willis near her Forest Park home. She had a felony conviction 15 years ago, but since then has turned her life around and is now a chaplain. Pro bono legal services through the Georgia Justice Project helped her get a full pardon in August. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

For anyone who has ever made a harmful mistake, had a lasting regret, or stumbled and fell in life, Atlanta chaplain Gwendale Boyd-Willis has these words of encouragement: “You can come back from it. It is possible.”

Boyd-Willis, 44, speaks from the experience of someone who’s walked through a dark storm but now looks back from the other side. It was a storm of her own making, born out of a split-second decision that brought great sorrow.

In 2005, at age 29, coming out of a devastating divorce, Boyd-Willis used a card left in an ATM to withdraw money and make purchases. She was arrested on a felony theft charge and served a four-month sentence in a women’s detention center and years on probation. Because she cooperated with the investigation, the charges were reduced from nine offenses to four.

Serving time was “a wake-up call” during a dark period of her life, Boyd-Willis said.

“It made me appreciate life more," she said. “I’d been given a second chance, and I told myself, I’m going forward. I’m not going to let anything stop me.”

Boyd-Willis is a Christian with strong faith and a “go-getter with a determination that won’t quit, despite obstacles that come her way,” said longtime family friend Eva Barber.

Portrait of Gwendale Boyd-Willis near her Forest Park home. She had a felony conviction 15 years ago, but since then has turned her life around and is now a chaplain. Pro bono legal services through the Georgia Justice Project helped her get a full pardon in August. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Portrait of Gwendale Boyd-Willis near her Forest Park home. She had a felony conviction 15 years ago, but since then has turned her life around and is now a chaplain. Pro bono legal services through the Georgia Justice Project helped her get a full pardon in August. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

After setting some goals, Boyd-Willis started college at age 34, earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice then master’s degrees in religious studies and divinity.

Despite these academic successes, her criminal past was always a stumbling block. Her probation was dropped after a friend sent a letter to the judge on her behalf, but the felony was still part of her record.

“It’s always been a struggle having that felony on my record,” Boyd-Willis said. “Even while going to school, I couldn’t get a job. It’s like a stigma attached to your name. I can’t count the number of tears I’ve cried.”

During those times, she turned to God and her friends for support. They would pray together, then Boyd-Willis would march on.

“There’s a scripture that keeps me going: ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’ I kept that near and dear to my heart. Anytime someone said no, I just kept going,” she said.

Twice, she tried on her own to have her record expunged, but the State Board of Pardons and Paroles denied her pardon applications.

Finally, she applied for assistance from the Georgia Justice Project, a nonprofit providing legal help for anyone with a state criminal record. Clearing your past is not an easy process; the pardon application is extensive, says Erin Donohue-Koehler, GJP’s pro bono coordinator.

“Georgia convictions can appear on a background check indefinitely, following a person for the rest of their life,” she said.

Assigned to her case was Attorney Michael Davis, assistant general counsel with Georgia-Pacific. He volunteered his time as part of his company’s pro bono initiative to expand justice opportunities. This case was his first with the nonprofit.

Davis said he immediately felt a rapport with Boyd-Willis, whom he described as “very impressive; open and forthright.”

They worked together for months, gathering documents and paperwork for the pardon application, which they turned in just as the pandemic slowed everything down.

Then in early August, Boyd-Willis received a letter from the state granting her full pardon – something she had dreamed about for more than a decade. She read the message, typed in large, bold print and then cried for 30 minutes.

“I felt like a weight that had been on me so long had been lifted. I’m still in awe,” Boyd-Willis said recently.

Davis called the pardon decision “amazing.” “I felt like she was going to get it because, if you’ve spent any time with Gwen, you know she’s a good-hearted person who just made a mistake when she was younger.”

Her friends rejoiced with her. Delores Gunn said she had to see the letter for herself and went to her friend’s home and read it aloud. Then they both cried.

“It was an amazing thing that God allowed me to witness,” Gunn said.

Boyd-Willis, a certified chaplain, works part-time with Marketplace Chaplains in Atlanta. Her goal all along has been to help others going through difficult times.

“I see that God is with me, and he’s always been with me,” she said. “I use what happened to me as a testimony to others. If you make a mistake, I let them know it’s not the end of the world. You can come back from it. I’m a testimony, living proof of that.”

Gwendale Boyd-Willis discusses her case with Michael Davis, a longtime attorney at Georgia-Pacific in Atlanta. Davis volunteered his time to the Georgia Justice Project as part of Koch Industries' companywide pro bono initiative to expand justice opportunities. Boyd-Willis and Davis would meet regularly at Georgia Justice Project's headquarters and pore over documents and drafts for hours. (Photo contributed by Koch Industries)
Gwendale Boyd-Willis discusses her case with Michael Davis, a longtime attorney at Georgia-Pacific in Atlanta. Davis volunteered his time to the Georgia Justice Project as part of Koch Industries' companywide pro bono initiative to expand justice opportunities. Boyd-Willis and Davis would meet regularly at Georgia Justice Project's headquarters and pore over documents and drafts for hours. (Photo contributed by Koch Industries)

Credit: contributed by Koch Industries

Credit: contributed by Koch Industries

HOW GWENDALE BOYD-WILLIS INSPIRES OTHERS

“Gwendale is a person with a big heart. She is always bringing somebody groceries or buying somebody a pair of shoes.” Delores Gunn, friend from church

“Although Gwendale had some issues that she faced, she always had this burning fire in her that would prevail and shine through. In talking with her, she always had a vision of being free from this system that was in place to punish her but never show her mercy.” Ravoris Latimore, friend from college

“She wanted to get her degrees to help others. She had a greater purpose in mind than just getting a degree. She wants to help others who have fallen on hard times and made a bad choice.” Eva Barber, longtime family friend

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