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.
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.