Hey, if turkeys, peas and carrots can get a presidential pardon, how about the thousands of Americans waiting in line for similar consideration?
This week, we saw the traditional — some might call it corny and meaningless — spectacle of the president pretending to pardon rotund turkeys to ensure they don’t wind up on someone’s Thanksgiving table. In the meantime, pending petitions for a pardon — or even a commutation — pile up at the Department of Justice.
A quick pause here for a definition check: a pardon wipes away a person’s punishments for conviction. If they are behind bars, they walk free. If they are already out, they have the burden of conviction lifted. By contrast, a commutation allows the prisoner to go free on time served but keeps their conviction intact.
Back to my question. Why do we celebrate the annual presidential pardon for fowl and make the procedure for human beings so complicated?
Mine is not an original thought. Law professor and former federal prosecutor Mark Osler has been writing about this for years. Most recently, he penned an article about the contrasts in process.
Ironically, pardoning a turkey, Osler wrote, is a fair and well-thought out practice. First, it’s timed to be an annual event, not a willy-nilly occurrence. Second, the process is overseen by an expert, in this case the chairman of the National Turkey Federation. Third, specific selection criteria is followed. As Osler writes, “the finalists are selected based on their willingness to be handled,” among other things. And “attention is paid to making sure they thrive after their grant of clemency.”
Now let’s contrast that with the way a human being seeking presidential clemency is handled. After pardon or commutation petitions are filed, it could take years for the convicts to get an answer. And their filing is not studied or considered by an independent expert; the petitions go back through the very office that convicted them — the Department of Justice — and land on the desk of civil servants who have lots of other responsibilities. As professor Osler puts it, the system is “run largely by biased generalists, devoid of consistent, meaningful criteria, and it does little to ensure success of individuals after their release.”
Grants of clemency, either pardons or commutations, also seem to have little to do with fairness. Some prisoners who were unjustly convicted or are serving extreme sentences that don’t match their offenses are left on the sidelines with no one to represent them to the powers that be. Yet history shows that some of the most notorious have elbowed their way to the top of the list and are handed that prized second chance outside prison.
In 1971, then-President Richard Nixon pardoned corrupt Teamsters chief Jimmy Hoffa. Then-President Gerald Ford then pardoned Nixon in 1974, although the disgraced president had never actually been charged with a crime. In 1999, then-President Bill Clinton commuted the sentences of 16 members of the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), a violent Puerto Rican terrorist group that detonated 120 deadly bombs across America. One of the 16, terrorist Oscar Lopez Rivera, refused the offer and the condition that he denounce violence. But on Jan. 17, 2017, one of President Barak Obama’s last days in office, Lopez Rivera got a presidential commutation with no conditions attached. In another controversial pardon that day, Obama awarded clemency to former Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning, who had served just seven years of a 35-year sentence for passing national security secrets to WikiLeaks.
More recently, TV personality Kim Kardashian West took the plight of Alice Marie Johnson, 63, straight to the White House after learning about Johnson’s first-time nonviolent drug conviction 22 years ago. President Trump was told about Johnson’s sentence of life without parole, her low-level involvement in a Memphis cocaine ring, and how the co-defendants who testified against her got sentences of up to just 10 years or even probation. President Trump commuted her sentence, and in June, after almost 22 years in prison, the mother of five was allowed to return to her family.
It doesn’t seem fair that high-level labor union lobbyists (as in the Hoffa case), liberal politicians and Broadway stars, or First Amendment and Amnesty International types (as in the Manning case) get to push to the front of the presidential clemency line, not even if they are deserving of early release (as in the Johnson case).
So far, President Trump has granted seven pardons and four commutations, more than any of his recent predecessors during their first two years in office. But he has concentrated only on high-profile cases brought to him by family and associates. If the goal is to truly Make America Great Again, it is clear we need a more impartial, honest and fair system that considers all clemency petitions on an equal and more time-efficient basis.