On This Day: Merle Haggard Granted Full Pardon from Past Crimes by Then-Governor Ronald Reagan in 1972

by Keeli Parkey
(Photo by Beth Gwinn/Getty Images

Merle Haggard was a respected country music star during his lifetime. And he remains popular to this day. He rose to fame following his younger days where he was often in trouble with the law.

After ending up in prison in the late 1950s, the singer took steps to put his criminal past behind him. That effort was officially recognized 49 years ago today (March 14) by a man who would one day be president of the United States.

It was on this day in 1972 that Ronald Reagan granted Merle Haggard a pardon for his crimes, according to 101HankFm.com. Reagan was serving as the governor of California at the time. He was elected as the 40th president of the United States in 1980. He officially took office in January 1981.

And, Haggard was very grateful for then-Governor Reagan’s pardon. It made his life much easier.

“Well, you can imagine yourself, you got this tail hanging on you, and suddenly you don’t have it anymore,” he reportedly told OneCountry. “It’s just wonderful not to have to walk up and say, ‘Pardon me, before I do this, I want to tell you that I’m an ex-convict.’

“You have to do that with any sort of legal transaction, with leaving the country, with anything of that nature. All those things went away when Ronald Reagan was kind enough to look at my case and give me a pardon.”

Merle Haggard Served Time in San Quentin Prison

As a young man, Merle Haggard spent time in jail for bad checks and theft, according to his profile on the Country Music Hall of Fame website. In 1957, Haggard was discovered burglarizing a roadhouse in Bakersfield.

He was arrested, then tried to escape from the county jail. It was after this escape attempt that he was sent to San Quentin. At first, Haggard didn’t use his time in prison for rehabilitation. He got drunk inside the prison and was placed in solitary confinement.

However, according to CountryFanCast.com, Haggard eventually decided to turn his life around. While in prison, he completed his high school equivalency diploma. He earned parole in 1960 and worked to stay out of trouble. He worked for his brother after his parole.

Haggard also performed during this time in his life. His hard work, dedication and success caught the eye of Reagan a decade later and Haggard received the pardon.

The website also reports that Merle Haggard had the opportunity to meet Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy Reagan. This meeting took place several years after he was pardoned. The country star even got a chance to sing for them. And prior to his death in 2016, Haggard many times expressed his gratitude for the pardon he received on March 14, 1972.

“He didn’t have to do it at all,” Haggard reportedly said of Reagan. “He could have just snubbed his nose and went on to lunch.”