Samuel Morison, who recently left the pardon division of the Justice Department where he was a staff attorney, said Hettinger's pardon after getting arrested for a second time is highly unusual even though in most ways her case fits the pardon profile.
“Very often, if not routinely, a subsequent arrest would be a disqualifying event," Morison said. "It illustrates how arbitrary the process is. She may well be a good candidate but there are a lot of other people who are good candidates.”
U.S. Pardon Attorney Ronald Rodgers recommended Obama pardon Hettinger. A White House spokesman declined to comment on any specific case. "The President was moved by the strength of the applicants' post-conviction efforts at atonement, as well as their superior citizenship and individual achievements in the years since their convictions," said Adam Abrams, the spokesman.
In the last 20 years, presidents have been increasingly less willing to use their power to pardon for fear of political backlash. With exceptions -- George H.W. Bush's pardon of administration figures in the Iran-Contra scandal, and Bill Clinton's pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich -- presidents have reserved most pardons for the least questionable cases.
It is an often frustrating process that can take years in which an applicant makes a clemency request, secures letters of reference to their character and their contributions to society, and sits back as FBI agents interview people who know them -- sometimes more than once. Most applicants are disappointed.
"Very few pardons are granted, so your statistical odds are bad," said Charles Shanor, a constitutional law expert at Emory University. "You're spending time and money and may be hiring a lawyer to likely have no decision made in your favor."
Washington lawyer Margaret Colgate Love said people usually seek pardons to avoid deportation, to show rehabilitation when applying for jobs, to remove legal bars to licensing and firearms permits or, in some cases, as with the 73-year-old Dixon, to go to their graves forgiven.
“In the federal system, a presidential pardon is the only way to go hunting again," said Love, who was the head pardon attorney for Justice Department from 1990 to 1997. "There are a lot of jobs and licenses that are now off-limits if not legally at least as a practical matter to people with a felony conviction.”
For Hettinger, pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine in 1986 meant she couldn't become a licensed psychologist. No university doctoral program would accept her, she said.
"I have to get my doctorate before I die," the 49-year-old said. "I don't know if a university is going to take me now, but at least I'll have a better chance."
Her legal trouble began when she was 21, working as a waitress and living with her future husband, Thomas Hettinger, a 30-year-old glazier at an auto-glass installer and small-time drug dealer who sold cocaine to pay for his own supply, she said.
Their pleas resulted in a few months for him, 30 days for her and three years of probation.
"It is not like we were hardened criminals. We worked hard," she said. "I paid my taxes. I've stayed employed for 25 years. I've raised a very successful daughter who went to Harvard Law School and I never have taken a cent of unemployment, so I think I'm rehabilitated."
After they married and served their probation, the couple moved from Sioux City, Iowa, to Florida in 1990 to start a new life. Her husband, she said, was humiliated. "He had lost all the respect of his family," she said.
They ended up in the Fort Lauderdale area and got jobs. Then he was diagnosed with melanoma and while he was in treatment in 1997, she was arrested again.
She said she was driving a friend home from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, where she was a sponsor, when a deputy stopped the car for a broken tail-light. A search turned up cocaine, which she said she didn't know about and had been hidden by her friend.
She pleaded no contest and in return the court agreed to drop the case if she stayed out of legal trouble for three years.
The next year, her husband died and she was left to raise their 16-year-old daughter, Vanessa, who was the person she could point to as evidence she was doing right in the world.
Hettinger, who had been bounced from foster family to foster family as a child and was the only one of nine siblings to graduate from high school, pushed her daughter to excel.
But Vanessa started to slip academically after her father's death. Hettinger reminded her of the importance of college degree and to make the point, she decided, at 37, to go to college and pursue her own dream of becoming a psychologist.
"That's when the felony started to come back to bite me," Hettinger said. "Telling my daughter was a major embarrassment for me. She was crushed. She wouldn't talk to me for days."
Hettinger enrolled in what was then Broward Community College and then later transferred to Florida Atlantic University to get her bachelor's degree. She went on to the University of West Florida to earn a master's in psychology of industrial organizations -- a degree she could apply to the work force if she was unable to get the doctorate.
In 2003, she applied for the pardon, filling out the paperwork herself and collecting the letters of reference, hoping that after she finished the master's program she would be able to tell doctoral programs that she would be able to get licensed as a psychologist.
The FBI did background checks when she moved, to attend graduate school in Pensacola and later to live and work in Georgia. Agents talked to professors, friends and neighbors, but she said the agents never disclosed the reason for the questions -- a fact for which she was grateful. When people asked her why, she would smile and say, "None of your business."
But all that changed last Friday when the news was reported that she was one of the Obama Nine. It wasn't long, she said, before her Facebook page lit up with a reference from a friend that a Roxane Kay Hettinger had been pardoned. "I'm sure it's not you," the friend wrote.
"I responded, ‘I don't know how to respond to that. LOL," Hettinger said, adding, "It is still very embarrassing."