Blue Byline

A cop's perspective of the news and South Sound matters

Clemency is a slap in the face of justice

Post by Brian O'Neill on Jan. 12, 2012 at 8:45 pm with 21 Comments »
January 12, 2012 9:24 pm

Mercy is a noble sentiment and a reflection of our American principles. In the legal realm the concept of clemency is a practice that predated our colonies and was a power utilized by heads of state and royal appointees. These government pardons could either correct the errors of corrupt courts or (for profit) corrupt the results of righteous courts. Somehow, the practice of clemency has lasted until the present day when the governors of some 40 of our 50 states wield the power of the pardon.

That authority was recently exercised by Haley Barbour, the former governor of Mississippi, when he pardoned almost 200 individuals in his last days in office. As his proponents were quick to point out, not all of those granted clemency by Governor Barbour were inmates. Many were already back in their communities, many of those still incarcerated were awaiting imminent release, and most importantly, noted Haley’s spokesperson, none of those released were death row inmates.

Open prison door/ AP photo

Still, who feels comfortable with this information? Does it feel any better knowing that Barbour also freed five convicted killers in 2008?

If you received this news with a hint of moral outrage, do not shake it off. The undertone of injustice in these pardons is palpable. The power of clemency needs to be abolished.

The foremost reason to do away with pardons is that we already have a methodical process for adjudicating guilt. It starts with probable cause wherein a police officer must either witness a criminal act or amass enough evidence to make an arrest. The prosecutor then weighs the evidence to make his or her own determination of its merits for charging in court. Next, the judge and jury will decide if the totality of the case precludes any reasonable doubt of the defendant’s guilt. The accused, who is presumed innocent, is afforded representation to defend himself. Following a conviction there is still a healthy appeals process: the state appellate courts up to and including a state supreme court; the federal appellate courts up to and including the U.S. Supreme Court. Appeals can be heard at any time during incarceration. Probation and parole committees determine if humanitarian needs necessitate an early release.

At the end of this chain appears the weakest link: the governor’s pardon. This throwback power betrays the exhaustive efforts completed by professionals we employ in order to keep our communities safe.

There is also the inescapable fact that pardons are granted by politicians. Would it be fair to consider that our elected officials may be using religious, cultural or moral imperatives to guide them on clemency matters? Should these subjective parameters enter into this decision? Would it be wise to also consider that a politician with the power to release convicted killers may be doing so for the purpose of financial gain? (In case you’ve forgotten a more recent example of a politician selling his authority, I’ll refer you to an article on a gentleman named Blagojevich).

While most offers of clemency come and go with little fanfare, there is also the great risk that a governor’s pardon may result in tragic consequences. Our community must never be allowed to forget the tragic killings of four Lakewood police officers, and we should recall that the killer was freed from jail by the pardon of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.

It’s time to get rid of this farce. We have enough legitimate checks and balance. We don’t need politicians holding a stack of “Get out of jail free” cards. We should not provide freedom to individuals who have already been judged as unfit to walk our streets.

And Mr. Barbour, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Leave a comment Comments → 21
  1. serendipity says:

    Brian, you are leaving some facts out about the case of the four officers tragically shot in Lakewood. We let him come to our state while he was on parole. The corrections officers in the Pierce County jail ignored his threats to kill police officers. He should have been held based on his threats not to mention the likelihood he was in violation of his parole. You Make a sweeping comment about clemency. It is excruiatingly unfair to use a highly emotive case such as the Lakewood four as the impetus for your article. The Justice Project, for instance, can obtain clemency for inmates wrongly convicted for crimes. This does happen, Brian. Thanks to DNA testing and people willing to work for very little money manage to get some inmates released. Troy Davis who was recently murdered based on faulty eyewitness testimony is an example of how our justice system is not working.

    Clemency is granted to many to stop the death penalty. If you think this penalty is working in this nation, then you need to do some research. Countries that do not employ this penalty actually have lower crime rates and costs due to the lack of expesive appeals that can go on for decades. Whether or not you morally agree with taking a life or not, surely all of us can agree that excessive cost is a major reason to eliminate the death penalty. Again, I object to you sensationally using the Lakewood case as an argument in your article. It is sensational, unfair and emotive. It sways public opinion and causes an outrage that just increases violent outburts. There is no reason to keep dragging the painful issue of that tragic incident up to serve the purpose of justifying more violence directed at citizens by the police. It breaks all of our hearts the shooting happened. Please use a different argument next time.

  2. Brian O'Neill says:

    reformedliberal and Serendipity- I appreciate your comments, but I do not feel your arguments hold any water.

    I acknowledge that other mistakes were made in giving Clemmons his freedom, but that does not change the fact that Huckabee’s pardon released a violent man who later committed a heinous act. Those of us in law enforcement continue to mourn the slain officers, and we will never forget. Nor should we fail to learn from the errors in the system that caused this tragedy. If you feel that you can not read any more about the events in Lakewood two years ago then I would suggest you skip such articles.

    Also, I do not buy your argument about clemency being the solution for the death penalty. I agree that there are many flaws in our death penalty cases, especially the lengthy appeals. If our government, both state and federal, were to vote to end the practice then that would be the appropriate response. But for a single governor to take the law into his or her own hands and refute the lengthy criminal justice process is wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

  3. lovethemountains says:

    serendipity you are also making a mistake when you compare the unilateral pardon of a convicted person by one man, the governor, to the release of inmates who have been found to be not guilty by reason of new evidence. A big difference.

  4. Ummmm…Troy Davis wasn’t wrongfully accused. He was a murderer that got what was coming to him.

    Getting back on topic, I’d suggest one way of fixing the issues of clemency is to remove the office of DA from the political process entirely. As long as the DA is more worried about votes than due process we end up with the occasional injustices.

    Except for Troy Davis. He was guilty.

    Eyewitness testimony, like all evidence tending to show guilt, has gotten a bad name recently, but the “eyewitness” testimony in this case did not consist simply of strangers trying to distinguish one tall black man from another. For one thing, several of the eyewitnesses knew Davis personally.

    The bulk of the eyewitness testimony established the following:

    Two tall, young black men were harassing a vagrant in the Burger King parking lot, one in a yellow shirt and the other in a white Batman shirt. The one in the white shirt used a brown revolver to pistol-whip the vagrant. When a cop yelled at them to stop, the man in the white shirt ran, then wheeled around and shot the cop, walked over to his body and shot him again, smiling.

    Some eyewitnesses described the shooter as wearing a white shirt, some said it was a white shirt with writing, and some identified it specifically as a white Batman shirt. Not one witness said the man in the yellow shirt pistol-whipped the vagrant or shot the cop.

    Several of Davis’ friends testified — without recantation — that he was the one in a white shirt. Several eyewitnesses, both acquaintances and strangers, specifically identified Davis as the one who shot Officer MacPhail.

    Now the media claim that seven of the nine witnesses against Davis at trial have recanted.

    First of all, the state presented 34 witnesses against Davis — not nine — which should give you some idea of how punctilious the media are about their facts in death penalty cases.

    Among the witnesses who did not recant a word of their testimony against Davis were three members of the Air Force, who saw the shooting from their van in the Burger King drive-in lane. The airman who saw events clearly enough to positively identify Davis as the shooter explained on cross-examination, “You don’t forget someone that stands over and shoots someone.”

    Recanted testimony is the least believable evidence since it proves only that defense lawyers managed to pressure some witnesses to alter their testimony, conveniently after the trial has ended. Even criminal lobbyist Justice William Brennan ridiculed post-trial recantations.

    Three recantations were from friends of Davis, making minor or completely unbelievable modifications to their trial testimony. For example, one said he was no longer sure he saw Davis shoot the cop, even though he was five feet away at the time. His remaining testimony still implicated Davis.

    One alleged recantation, from the vagrant’s girlfriend (since deceased), wasn’t a recantation at all, but rather reiterated all relevant parts of her trial testimony, which included a direct identification of Davis as the shooter.

    Only two of the seven alleged “recantations” (out of 34 witnesses) actually recanted anything of value — and those two affidavits were discounted by the court because Davis refused to allow the affiants to testify at the post-trial evidentiary hearing, even though one was seated right outside the courtroom, waiting to appear.

    The court specifically warned Davis that his refusal to call his only two genuinely recanting witnesses would make their affidavits worthless. But Davis still refused to call them — suggesting, as the court said, that their lawyer-drafted affidavits would not have held up under cross-examination.

  5. BlaineCGarver says:

    Thanks, Gandolf…

  6. lovethemountains says:

    UPDATE:

    A Mississippi Circuit Court Judge has issued a temporary injunction halting the release of the inmates pardoned by Barbour. A hearing on the matter will be held later this month.

  7. reformedliberal says:

    The executive pardon is an essential element of our system. It’s one of the “checks and balances” built in as a safety feature, to keep any one branch of government from being too powerful and to help ensure that the government does the will of the people.

    I would expect a police officer to understand this, and to have more respect for rule of law.

  8. lovethemountains says:

    reformedliberal, whether or not one supports the “executive pardon” you are very wrong in your definition of the action. There are many “checks and balances” in our criminal justice system that are far more reliable than a one man decision to release an incarcerated person who has been convicted by a jury of his peers and, in many cases, has lost appeals.

  9. serendipity says:

    Brian, it’s not that I don’t want to read anymore about the Lakewood officers, I just think tossing the issue into every argument is highly emotive and designed to sway public opinion in this region.

    Thank you for the clarification “love the mountains.”

    Gandalf, I believe seven of nine jurors recanted. Since jurors are given far more information due to the fact they are jurors, the other 34 statements don’t carry as much weight. Who were these 34 people? White people who think black people all look the same?

  10. reformedliberal says:

    lovethemountains…

    Read the Constitution (state constitutions generally contain similar language):

    “The President…

    …and he shall have Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.”

    It’s not meant to be part of the criminal justice system; it’s part of the balancing of power between the three branches of government.

  11. When we hear the sentence of,20 years in Prison with no chance of Parole,that is what we expect! No Pardon from the President or anyone else connected from the Political or Judicial System.As it is we have all seen sentences negated by the people in power.The way I see it, to curtail this practice, would be the Law that if a Convicted Person were Pardoned and reoffend a crime of any nature,The person responsible for the pardoning would be required to finish out the convicts original sentence in prison,plus add on the sentence time for the new crime.I can assure you any one giving a pardon under those conditions,would have to be convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt,that prisoner would not reoffend and if they did they would only have themselves to blame when they get to pay the price for their actions.

  12. lovethemountains says:

    sincere, that is a pretty good thought except you and I both know that would never happen.

    With respect to those who are in prison after being convicted of a serious crime I have no problem with those who sincerely believe the convicted person is innocent of the charge and who pursue legitimate avenues to prove that fact. I was a part of the criminal justice system for thirty years and was delighted when guilty persons were convicted and sent to prison. Having said that, I also believe in our Constitution that grants ALL OF US the same rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happines.

    I don’t agree with the theory (actually not a theory but a matter of law) that a single person, president or governor, should have the power to negate the conclusion of a court and jury regarding the guilt or innocence of a convicted felon or that the convicted person should be set free.

  13. Lovethe mountains I agree with you on my idea never happening and it was just wishful thinking on my part.As it probably will turn out,things will be done as they have been done in the past and the population will still be outraged at what the Justice System does or doesn’t do.We will just have to learn to live with the results.

  14. serendipity says:

    I do think a governor has the right to grant clemeny before a death sentence. The Troy Davis execution is one example of how the system does not work. I disagree with the earlier commentator. Troy’s death was a horrible mark in US history. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves for being one of the most violent countries on the planet with the exception of one like Somolia.

  15. leehallfae says:
  16. dinseattle says:

    Serendipity, you just had to play the race card. Good grief. I just hope these pardons for the violent criminals don’t backfire and someone lose their life because of this. I have no issue with a pardon if: (1) the crime you committed was 20 years ago; (2) you have not committed any misdemeanors or felonies since; (3) you are gainfully employed and have remained so for the last 20 years; and (4) you have given back to your community since that time. If all those criteria have been met, you have shown your remorse, and you are living a “good” life, then, sure, you deserve a pardon, but only under those conditions. Obviously if you were wrongly accused, that’s a given and requires no debate, but if not, then the criminal needs to prove why they deserve the pardon, not just because you scrubbed the governor’s toilet.

  17. Serendipity, how can you make such giant leaps of logic and whip out the race card at the same time? To top things off you ignore facts that are inconvenient to your point of view. No wonder people still believe these cause celebrities.

  18. Are we talking about the law or the tender feelings of the
    police?

  19. jimkingjr says:

    Attitudes such as those expressed by the author are more dangerous than any exercise of clemency. That he carries a badge and a gun scares me more than anything Haley Barbour has ever done.

  20. jmpurser says:

    When the nation gets as “morally outrage” at miscarriages of justice at the hands of cops, lawyers, and judges as they have over this act of clemency THEN we might be ready as a nation to get rid of clemency.

    Until then if you want to fix something don’t start by getting rid of the bandaids. Stop the bleeding first.

  21. Brian O'Neill says:

    Wow. Judging by some of these comments, this column was more dangerous to public safety than the early release of almost 200 felons. My concern about the pardons to these convicts was also described as scarier than Barbour’s irresponsible act.

    I had no idea such evil power was at my disposal. I also had no idea that putting those bad guys back on the street was the legal equivalent of a band aid.

    What rubbish. If the goal of such ridiculous comments was to lob a verbal hand grenade – a weapon with indiscriminate destructive powers and a questionable targeting system – then mission accomplished.

    I think most reasonable people would agree that the only scary notion here is that someone from the large group of newly released felons might cause some actual bleeding.

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