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May 27, 2018

Interesting accounting of clemency's continued decline in New Mexico

Cover-2-Gov-Pardon-Box1-771x796This past week I came across this terrific lengthy local article looking in-depth at clemency realities in one state. The piece's headlined reveals its essential finding: "Analysis: Pardons have plummeted in New Mexico under Gov. Martinez." Here are excerpts:

SFR and New Mexico In Depth have assembled what is perhaps the most complete picture ever of how recent New Mexico governors have used their constitutional power of executive clemency.  That includes pardons, for people who have served their time, and commutations, in which sentences are reduced for those still incarcerated.

A court victory in a public records lawsuit filed by SFR enabled this close examination, which found, among other things, that Ellis resides in an overwhelming majority: She has asked Martinez for a pardon—and didn’t receive one.

An analysis of hundreds of pages of documents and multiple spreadsheets by the news organizations shows that Martinez has granted just three pardons — an act that clears what are, in most cases, decades-old crimes from people’s criminal records — since taking office.  More significantly, the analysis reveals a drastic drop in the number of people even requesting clemency under Martinez, compared to the previous two administrations.

Former two-term governors Gary Johnson and Bill Richardson fielded more than 1,000 clemency applications each; Martinez has received roughly 250 applications for mercy in her seven and half years as governor, according to records turned over by the state.  Johnson, then a Republican and now a Libertarian, granted nearly 9 percent of pardon applications between 1995 and 2003, the analysis found.  Richardson, a Democrat who served from 2003 through 2010, had a 7 percent pardon grant rate.

Martinez: 1 percent.

Johnson commuted two women’s sentences, and Richardson gave one woman a commutation.  Martinez has not granted any commutation requests, the records show.

The meager grant rate for Martinez, a former district attorney in Las Cruces who is approaching the end of her second and final term, fits with her govern-as-prosecutor style on criminal justice issues — including her ongoing push to reinstate the death penalty, calls for increased sentences for a host of crimes and even coming around to support Trump’s border wall idea.

The precipitous decline in applications surprised a pair of longtime New Mexico criminal defense lawyers who have decades of experience in post-conviction work.  Both concede, however, that they’ve told prospective clients not to bother with clemency applications until there’s a new governor, given Martinez’ rhetoric since she took office in 2011.  One of the lawyers, Mark Donatelli of Santa Fe, calls Martinez’ clemency record an “abuse of power in the sense of not using the powers that are granted to her by the Legislature and our constitution.”

Mark Osler, a professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota whose scholarship, writing and teaching have focused on clemency nationwide, says he’s not aware of any other states that have seen applications fall off the cliff as they have here. He called Martinez’ stinginess with clemency a “dereliction of duty.”

“Pardons, which effectively are a restoration of rights, are meant to be part of the system; they’re included in state constitutions, and we don’t throw constitutions together casually,” Osler says. “There’s something deeply troubling about kicking part of the system out from under people.”

Donatelli and Margaret Strickland, president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, say pardons are especially important in New Mexico, which does not allow expungement — the wiping clean of some criminal records after a certain period of time — even for misdemeanors. In the internet age, when arrest records are a mouse-click away, a pardon could go miles toward landing someone a job.

Martinez, however, has granted pardons to three people who are at or near retirement age.  Their crimes: welfare fraud; breaking and entering; and larceny. The governor has denied at least 65 applications for clemency outright; she deemed at least another 71 “ineligible” for various reasons and, in 32 cases, her office did not provide a disposition or an explanation for where the applications stand.

Some of the pardon files Martinez’ office provided are incomplete, leaving a question mark hovering over the disposition of some 85 cases, some of which the governor appears not to have acted on.  The data leaves other questions, too.  It appears the state does not track the race, ethnicity, age or even gender of those who have applied for pardons. Nor is there an indication of how many applicants had the assistance of a lawyer.

What is clear, however, is that people have sought clemency for crimes ranging from first-degree murder — automatically ineligible for pardons here, by law — to rape, armed robbery, writing worthless checks and drug possession charges that are no longer felonies in New Mexico.  And although Martinez has turned away a higher percentage of applicants than her predecessors, the vast majority of those who have filled out a pardon application during the past 24 years have come away empty-handed.

Martinez has steadfastly refused to discuss her pardon record, going so far as to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of state money on a private lawyer to keep secret the records that underpin this story.  She remained silent through multiple requests for comment on the findings by SFR and NMID....

During her first four-year term, Martinez put more requirements in place for applying for pardons, a process that already forced applicants to have a high school diploma and to wait various lengths of time after their convictions before applying. She has barred pardons for a host of crimes, including misdemeanors, multiple DWIs and sexual offenses.

New Mexico is one of 29 states where the power of executive clemency is vested in the governor alone, according to a scholarly paper published by the American Bar Association in 2009. New Mexico state law allows for its Parole Board to advise the state’s chief executive on pardons.  And the governor does frequently seek Parole Board input; the SFR and NMID analysis shows the Parole Board weighed in on 134 requests under Johnson, 259 requests under Richardson and at least 68 requests under Martinez.

In 13 cases, Martinez went against the Parole Board’s recommendation. Such was the case with Bruce Gillis, who in 1974 was convicted of a fourth-degree felony for distributing marijuana.  Gillis told Martinez in a letter that he was 20 years old, “immature and irresponsible,” and pleaded guilty to the charge at the advice of a lawyer, but later turned his life around.  The Parole Board recommended a pardon. Martinez denied it.

Generally, in states where pardon power isn’t invested in a single person, rates of successful pardon applications are higher, says Osler, the Minnesota law professor.  For example, Georgia and South Carolina, where parole boards have ultimate authority over pardons, issue pardons at higher rates than Vermont, Minnesota and New Mexico, three states where the governor has complete control.  “You tend to see fewer granted when the executive has absolute power, because it becomes a political concern,” he says.

May 27, 2018 at 12:41 PM | Permalink

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