Sunday, March 11, 2018

"'A Day Late and a Dollar Short': President Obama's Clemency Initiative 2014"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Paul Larkin now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Over his last two years in office, President Barack Obama used his Article II Pardon Clause power to commute the sentences imposed on more than 1,700 drug offenders. In a 2017 law review article, he congratulated himself for reinvigorating the federal clemency process. His clemency initiative, however, was hardly the unqualified success that he claims.

Obama waited far too long before undertaking his effort. He should have started it in 2010, rather than in 2014.  That would have allowed the thousands of clemency decisions he made to be handled at a more reasonable pace and probably more accurately.  He also should have issued a general conditional commutation order rather than undertake a case-by-case re-examination of the sentence each clemency applicant received. That would have allowed district court judges, who are far better than any president could be at making sentencing decisions, to resentence each offender.  Finally, he should have reformed the clear structural defect in the federal clemency process.  The Department of Justice controls the clemency application process even though, as the agency that prosecuted every clemency applicant, the department suffers from an actual or apparent conflict of interest.  In sum, Obama could have done far more by doing far less or by doing something far different than by acting as the Resentencer-in-Chief.

March 11, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Prez Trump issues his second pardon; Kristian Saucier, whom prosecutors sought imprisoned for six years, served year for taking photos in classified sub room

I am pleased to report that President Donald Trump is continuing to make use of his clemency power during the first part of his first term.  A relatively high-profile case is yet again the subject of his activity, as reported in this Politico article headlined "Trump pardons sailor in submarine photos case." Here are the details:

President Donald Trump has pardoned a Navy submariner sentenced to prison for taking photos inside the classified engine room of a nuclear submarine, the White House announced on Friday.

Petty Officer First Class Kristian Saucier pleaded guilty in May 2016 to two felony counts, one for unlawful retention of national defense information and another for obstruction of justice, for taking cellphone pictures inside the Navy vessel and later destroying his own equipment upon learning he was under investigation.

“The president has pardoned Kristian Saucier, a Navy submariner,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced at a briefing with reporters. The Justice Department later confirmed the move. Sanders added that “the president is appreciative of Mr. Saucier's service to the country.”

The move marked just the second pardon Trump has granted since entering office, with the first extended in August to Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff who was convicted of criminal contempt of court in a case involving his tactics targeting undocumented immigrants.

Saucier was sentenced to 12 months in prison for mishandling classified information. Critics have cited the episode to allege a double standard in how low- and high-ranking U.S. officials handle sensitive material. The president brought the case back into public view in January, when he compared the treatment of Saucier with that of his former electoral opponent Hillary Clinton and her top campaign officials....

Prosecutors had sought a much steeper sentence for the former Navy machinist, calling for him to face six years in prison, but the judge gave a more lenient sentence, a point the White House highlighted in announcing his pardon. “The sentencing judge found that Mr. Saucier’s offense stands in contrast to his commendable military service,” Sanders noted.

Though I would like to see Prez Trump issuing many more clemency grants, particularly in lower-profile cases, I remain quite pleased that Prez Trump is continued to use his clemency powers more during his first three years in office than did the last three presidents combined.

Related post on prior clemency grants:

March 10, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Friday, February 23, 2018

Only one of three planned executions completed: Florida carries out death sentence, Texas Gov commutes at last minute, and Alabama misses deadline

As noted in this prior post, yesterday there were executions scheduled in Alabama, Florida and Texas. If all three had been carried out, it would have marked first time in eight years that three killers were all executed on the same day. But, and the press stories below detail, only Florida completed its planned execution:

Texas: "Gov. Greg Abbott commutes death sentence minutes before Bart Whitaker's scheduled execution":

Kent Whitaker was praying when he got the news: The governor had spared his son. In an unexpected last-minute decision, Gov. Greg Abbott granted clemency to the Sugar Land man slated for execution Thursday, just minutes before he was to be strapped to the gurney in Huntsville.

Thomas "Bart" Whitaker was sent to death row for targeting his own family in a 2003 murder-for-hire plot aimed at landing a hefty $1 million inheritance.

Florida: "Eric Branch's last words target governor, AG: 'Let them come down here and do it'":

Convicted murderer Eric Branch used his final moments before he was executed to make a political statement, falling into unconsciousness as he shouted "murderers" between blood-curdling screams on the execution gurney.

The state of Florida carried out the execution of Branch, 47, on Thursday evening at the Florida State Prison in Raiford — roughly 335 miles from where he abducted, sexually assaulted and killed University of West Florida student Susan Morris as she was leaving a night class in January 1993.

Branch, who was on death row for nearly 25 years, was pronounced dead of a lethal injection at 6:05 p.m. Central Standard Time.

Alabama: "Execution of Alabama inmate Doyle Lee Hamm called off"

Doyle Lee Hamm survived his date with the executioner Thursday, as Alabama was unable to begin the procedure before the death warrant expired at midnight.

It was after 11:30 p.m. when word came that the execution had been called off. Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said medical personnel had advised officials that there wasn't enough time to ensure that the execution could be conducted in a humane manner. However, Dunn declined to detail the exact medical factors behind the decision, and said he didn't want to characterize them as a problem.

Hamm, 61, was convicted of killing Cullman hotel clerk Patrick Cunningham in January 1987. Recent appeals in his case involved the question of whether cancer had left him healthy enough to be executed without excessive suffering. His advocates had argued that his veins were in such bad shape that it wouldn't be possible for the state to carry out its lethal injection protocol cleanly.

One of Hamm's attorneys, Bernard Harcourt, was among those waiting outside death row at Holman Correctional Facility near Atmore. Afterward, via Twitter, he speculated that "they probably couldn't find a vein and had been poking him for over 2 1/2 hours."

Also worth noting is that the Alabama inmate's appeals to the Supreme Court generated some comments from some Justices detailed in this order: Justice Breyer issued a short statement respecting the denial of a stay which spoke to the defendant's lengthy time on death row; Justice Ginsburg issued a dissent, which Justice Sotomayor joined, expressing concerns "about how Hamm’s execution would be carried out."  Since the execution was not carried out, it will be interesting to see now if and when courts get asked again to scrutinize Alabama's execution plans and protocols.

February 23, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, February 22, 2018

How many of the executions scheduled today in Alabama, Florida and Texas will be completed?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Reuters article which begins, "Alabama, Florida and Texas plan to execute inmates on Thursday and if carried out, it would be the first time in eight years that three people on death row have been executed on the same day."  Here is more about what could be a busy day in both courts and execution chambers:

But in each state there are reasons why the executions could be halted, including an unprecedented clemency recommendation in Texas, where all three of this year’s U.S. executions have been carried out.

In Florida, questions were raised about holding an execution based on a majority, not unanimous, jury decision. In Alabama, lawyers have said the death row inmate is too ill to be executed.

Alabama plans to execute Doyle Hamm, 61, at 6 p.m. local time for the 1987 murder of motel clerk Patrick Cunningham.

Hamm’s lawyers have said he has terminal cancer, adding years of intravenous drug use, hepatitis C, and untreated lymphoma have made his veins unstable for a lethal injection. However, a court-appointed doctor examined Hamm on Feb. 15 and found he had “numerous accessible and usable veins in both his upper and lower extremities,” according to court filings.

Texas plans to execute Thomas Whitaker, 38, for masterminding a 2003 plot against his family in which his mother Tricia, 51, and brother Kevin, 19, were killed.  His father Kent Whitaker was shot in the chest and survived.  The father, 69, a devout Christian and retired executive, has said he forgives his son and his family does not want him to be executed. In a clemency petition, he said if the death penalty is implemented, it would make his pain worse.

On Tuesday, the Texas paroles board in a unanimous decision recommended clemency, largely based on the request of a victim’s forgiving family.  Republican Governor Greg Abbott has final say, and has not yet announced if he plans to halt the execution.

Florida plans to execute Eric Branch, 47, for the 1993 murder of University of West Florida student Susan Morris. Lawyers for Branch appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on arguments including that the court has previously blocked a Florida provision that allows executions for a non-unanimous jury decision and it should do so again in this case.

February 22, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Texas board recommends clemency for condemned killer for first time in over a decade

As reported in this local article, headlined "In rare move, Texas parole board recommends clemency for death row inmate Thomas Whitaker," the state which executes the most murderers in modern times is the locale for a rare clemency recommendation for the next scheduled to die. Here are the details:

In an exceedingly rare move, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted Tuesday to recommend a lesser sentence for a death row inmate facing execution.

The board voted unanimously in favor of clemency for Thomas Bartlett Whitaker, a man who is set to die on Thursday evening. The decision now falls on Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who can approve or deny the recommendation to change Whitaker’s death sentence to life in prison. The last time the board recommended clemency for a death row inmate was in 2007.

Abbott said at a political rally Tuesday night that he and his staff would base his decision on the facts, circumstances and law. “Any time anybody's life is at stake, that's a very serious matter,” Abbott said. “And it deserves very serious consideration on my part.”

Whitaker, 38, was convicted in the 2003 murders of his mother and 19-year-old brother as part of a plot to get inheritance money. His father, Kent Whitaker, was also shot in the attack but survived and has consistently begged for a life sentence for his son.

“Victims’ rights should mean something in this state, even when the victim is asking for mercy and not vengeance,” Kent Whitaker said at a press conference at the Texas Capitol just before the board’s vote came in.

Keith Hampton, Thomas Whitaker's lawyer, choked up when announcing to the family and the press that the board had recommended clemency. Kent Whitaker's wife cried out and grabbed Whitaker, who let out a sob and held his head in his hands. “Well, we’re going to the governor’s office right now,” Hampton said.

In December 2003, Thomas Whitaker, then 23, came home from dinner with his family knowing that his roommate Chris Brashear was waiting there to kill them, according to court documents. When they entered the house, Brashear shot and wounded Thomas’ father and killed his mother, Patricia, and 19-year-old brother, Kevin. Suspicion turned toward Whitaker in the murder investigation the next June, and he fled to Mexico, according to court documents. He was arrested more than a year later, and his father begged the Fort Bend County District Attorney’s Office not to seek the death penalty.

Whitaker offered to plead guilty to two life sentences, but the prosecution rejected the offer, saying Whitaker wasn’t remorseful and was being manipulative, court records show. They sought the death penalty, and in March 2007, they got it. Brashear was given a life sentence.

Fred Felcman, the original prosecutor in the case, said Tuesday that the parole board made its decision only because of the father’s forgiveness and seemingly didn't take into account the large number of other people affected by the murders, including the victims, the county, the jury and Patricia’s family. He said the board also disregarded testimony from psychiatrists and their own investigators who said Whitaker was manipulative. “I’m trying to figure out why [the board members] think they should commute this, and why the governor should even give it a second thought,” said Felcman, who is first assistant district attorney at Fort Bend County....

Attached to Whitaker’s petition to the board were letters from former prison guards and at least seven death row inmates who thought the condemned man deserved the lesser sentence of life in prison. Kent Whitaker said Tuesday that the guards said he was never a threat, and one said he’d be an asset in general population.

Death row inmates attested to Whitaker’s helpful presence in a prison environment, saying he encouraged them to better themselves, helped those with mental illness and could easily calm inmates down. William Speer, who has been on death row since 2001 for a prison murder, wrote in 2011 that the prison system needs more men like Whitaker to keep other inmates calm. “Of all the people I have met over the years Thomas Whitaker is the person I believe deserves clemency the most,” Speer wrote, according to the petition. “He is one of the best liked inmates on this farm by the guards and other inmates, and he has worked the hardest to rehabilitate himself.”...

Despite the board’s surprise recommendation on Tuesday afternoon, Whitaker was still scheduled for execution on Thursday after 6 p.m. If Abbott rejects the recommendation and the Supreme Court justices dismiss his appeals, he will become the fourth man executed in Texas — and the nation — in 2018. There are three other executions scheduled in Texas through May.

Prior related post:

February 21, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Notable account of a notable juror whose note had a notable impact on a scheduled Ohio execution

Prior posts here and here discussed a letter from a former juror in an Ohio capital case that prompted Governor John Kasich to grant a reprieve based on mitigating evidence that the juror said would have changed his vote at the penalty phase.  This story is told in full form in this new local article, headlined "This man stopped a Cincinnati killer's execution. Here's why he did it." Here are excerpts:

Ross Geiger isn’t some kind of activist when it comes to the death penalty. He’s never organized a candlelight vigil or stood outside a prison protesting an execution. He wants to be clear about that. “Everybody thinks I’m a crusader or something,” Geiger said. “They think I have no sympathy for the victims. That’s just not true.”

Yet Geiger did something last week that anti-death penalty activists rarely do. He stopped an execution. Earlier this year, the Loveland man wrote a letter to Gov. John Kasich because he was worried about the case of Raymond Tibbetts, a Cincinnati man who beat to death his wife, Sue Crawford, and stabbed to death his landlord, Fred Hicks, on the same day in 1997.

Geiger’s letter carried weight with Kasich, who delayed Tibbetts’ Feb. 13 execution until at least October, because Geiger served on the jury that convicted Tibbetts and recommended his death sentence....

Records related to Tibbetts’ clemency case with the parole board showed far more detail about Tibbetts’ background than was presented at the trial, Geiger said. He’d been abused as a child, put into foster care as a toddler and endured years of abuse and neglect, along with his siblings, the records showed.

At the trial, the jurors heard from a psychiatrist who’d examined Tibbetts, but no other witnesses. No family members. No other mental health professionals. None of the people Geiger found in the clemency paperwork. “I was astounded by the amount of material that was available (for the trial) that I never saw,” Geiger said. “There was an obvious breakdown in the system.”

The more he thought about it, Geiger said, the more upset he got. “The state had a duty to give me access to the information I needed to make the best decision I could,” he said. “It’s like if you have to take a big test, but you were deprived of the textbook.”

Geiger thought a long time about what he should do. He’s not a rabble rouser by nature. He’s raised two kids in suburban Cincinnati and works in the financial world. He considers himself a libertarian and said he was a rock-solid Republican at the time of the trial. He said he’s not opposed to the death penalty and he doesn’t believe he’s second-guessing the decision he made as Juror No. 2 in Tibbetts’ case. Given what he knew at the time, he said, the decision he made was correct.

But now he believes there is more he should have known. “I don’t really view it as changing my mind because the information wasn’t available at the time I was asked to make the decision,” Geiger said. “Based on the information available now, I don’t think justice was served in the case of Tibbetts.”

The appeals courts did not agree. A divided U.S. 6th Circuit panel ruled against Tibbetts, concluding any evidence the jurors didn’t hear would have been insufficient to change their minds about Tibbetts’ “moral culpability for such a brutal and horrific crime.” Prosecutors also have dismissed Geiger’s concerns. They say trials can’t be retried over and over every time a juror has second thoughts about a decision.

Kasich isn’t necessarily convinced, either. His reprieve gives the parole board time to reconsider clemency, but guarantees nothing. The execution still is set for Oct. 17.

Asked how he’d feel if Tibbetts died on that day, Geiger struggled to answer. He said he believes he did his job 20 years ago at the trial, and he believes he’s doing the right thing now by speaking up. “My motivation in writing that letter wasn’t to save an individual’s life,” Geiger said. “My prime motivation was to point out the errors.

“If we are going to trust the state to be our agents to execute people, then the state has a duty to get it right.”

Prior related posts:

February 20, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, February 19, 2018

"Conservatives urge Trump to grant pardons in Russia probe"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new Politico article.  Here are excerpts:

After months of criticizing special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, President Donald Trump’s supporters are issuing increasingly bold calls for presidential pardons to limit the investigation’s impact.  “I think he should be pardoning anybody who’s been indicted and make it clear that anybody else who gets indicted would be pardoned immediately,” said Frederick Fleitz, a former CIA analyst and senior vice president at the conservative Center for Security Policy.

The pleas for mercy mainly extend to the four former Trump aides who have already been swept up in the Russia probe: former campaign manager Paul Manafort, former deputy campaign manager Rick Gates, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos.  But they don’t stop there.

“It’s kind of cruel what’s going on right now and the president should put these defendants out of their misery,” said Larry Klayman, a conservative legal activist. “I think he should pardon everybody — and pardon himself.”

Klayman and Fleitz spoke before Mueller indicted thirteen Russian nationals on Friday for staging an elaborate 2016 election interference operation in the United States. Democratic leaders said the hard evidence of Russian meddling underscores the importance of letting Mueller’s investigation run its course....

Trump’s lawyers and aides insist it’s premature to discuss even the possibility of pardons. “There have been no pardon discussions at the White House,” Ty Cobb, the White House attorney who leads the president’s official response to the Russia investigation, told POLITICO on Friday just hours before Mueller’s latest indictment was released.

After the Washington Post reported in July that Trump had tasked his aides with researching his pardon powers, Trump dismissed the story — while also making clear his view of the law. “While all agree the U. S. President has the complete power to pardon, why think of that when only crime so far is LEAKS against us. FAKE NEWS,” Trump tweeted....

Trump has issued one pardon since taking office, to the controversial Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was facing criminal contempt of court charges for defying a court order to stop profiling Latinos.  That August action, in the face of strong political opposition, makes some conservatives think that Trump would be willing to defy his critics again. “He did it for Sheriff Joe, so I’m thinking he would do it for other circumstances as well,” [Tom] Fitton said.

There has been little sign of Congressional Republican support for the idea of pardons. In the days after Flynn pleaded guilty, South Carolina Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott both urged Trump not to pardon Flynn. Scott said it is important to have accountability and “a process that is clear and transparent.”

Pardons would also come at a high political cost, former George W. Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. “It’d just raise even more questions about Donald Trump if he pardons those closest to him because people will think he’s trying to protect himself.”

“You should let justice run its course,” he added.

Even some conservatives who support pardons in principle are wary of the severe political backlash they are certain to trigger.  Mike Cernovich, a conservative activist who has been affiliated with the alt-right but rejects that label, said he believes the moment for pardons has passed and that Trump needs to wait until after the November mid-term elections.  “If the Democrats take over, pardon everyone,” Cernovich said.  “They’re coming for you anyway.  They have their nuke with impeachment. You have your nuke with pardons.  And then settle in for an interesting two years.”

February 19, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Notable advocate for clemency on behalf of next condemned to die in Texas

According to this Death Penalty Information Center page, Alabama, Florida and Texas all have executions scheduled for February 22.  This new Los Angeles Times story, headlined "Texas father seeks clemency for son who tried to kill him," discusses the notable person making a notable pitch for clemency for the killer scheduled to be executed.  Here are excerpts:

In a week, Thomas "Bart" Whitaker, 38, is scheduled to be executed for plotting a 2003 attack that left his mother and brother dead and almost killed his father. That father, Kent Whitaker, is doing everything he can to halt the execution. Inspired by his Christian faith and his son's repentance, the 69-year-old retired construction firm comptroller hopes to have his son's sentence commuted.  "The death penalty in this case is the wrong punishment," he said.

Kent Whitaker forgives his son. He paid for lawyers to fight the death sentence at trial in 2007, and got down on his knees and begged prosecutors to seek a life sentence.

Texas is known for capital punishment, executing more inmates than any other state in the country — three this year, seven last year. But Kent Whitaker notes that it is also a victims' rights state, meaning his wishes should be taken into account. "Juries routinely defer to victims in cases to spare the life of a killer," he said.

Thomas Whitaker's last chance is a clemency petition filed with the seven-member Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which makes a recommendation to the governor by majority vote.  Clemency is rare.  One of Whitaker's attorneys won it for another convicted murderer, Kenneth Foster, hours before he was scheduled to die in 2007, based on arguments drawn from Scripture.  Parole board members in Texas are bound by their consciences, not the law, and some told the lawyer afterward that his biblical arguments had influenced their votes.

So in Thomas Whitaker's clemency petition, his attorney cited the Old Testament story of Cain, who after murdering his brother Abel was marked — but not killed — by God. He also cited the New Testament parable of the prodigal son, forgiven and accepted by his father after he strayed because he repented. "You have a collision between two interests. Every one of those board members is a death penalty supporter. A nd every one of them is there to protect victims' interests. They have to decide if it is more important to execute Thomas Whitaker or spare Kent Whitaker," attorney Keith Hampton said.

Board members don't confer about clemency: They send their votes to the state individually. Condemned inmates and their families can request to meet a member of the board, but it's not guaranteed.   Last week, board member James LaFavers, a former Amarillo detective, met Whitaker's son on death row. They spent two hours talking. On Tuesday, the chairman of the board, former Lubbock County Sheriff David Gutierrez, met with Kent Whitaker, his new wife and brother in Austin for half an hour.  The chairman didn't ask any questions, just listened as Kent Whitaker made his case for clemency. He said his son had been a model prisoner for 11 years, that the family had asked prosecutors not to seek the death penalty at trial and "it ought to mean something when a victim asks for mercy."

Thomas Whitaker has confessed to plotting the murder of his family. His father believes he has reformed behind bars. Prosecutors disagree.

Whitaker was a troubled teenager.  After he was arrested for breaking into his high school with friends to steal computers, his parents sent him to a private Christian school, then Baylor University and Sam Houston State University. But he stopped attending.  The night of the attack, the family went out to dinner to celebrate his graduation, unaware that it was a lie — he had missed too many classes....

As they entered their house in the Houston suburb, an accomplice shot them, fatally wounding his mother, Tricia, 51, and 19-year-old brother, Kevin. A bullet passed just inches from Kent Whitaker's heart. Thomas Whitaker was shot in the arm to make it appear he too was a victim.  He then called 911.  It would be years before he admitted his role in the crime. A thousand people attended the funeral at the largest church in the family's conservative suburb, Sugar Land — including Thomas Whitaker. "He sat there smiling, acting as victim, knowing that he killed them," prosecutor Fred Felcman said.  Shortly before Whitaker was to be charged in 2004, he fled to Mexico, where he was caught a year later.

Felcman argued at trial that Whitaker planned to kill his family for a million-dollar inheritance. He had two accomplices — the gunman, who pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence, and a getaway driver, who got 15 years in prison. Although Whitaker was not the triggerman, Felcman argued, he "was the ringleader. He literally led his family back to be assassinated."

Felcman said Kent Whitaker has been used by his son. "Most people have a conscience so they don't try to manipulate people outright. He does," Felcman said.  The prosecutor has tried 13 capital cases. About half resulted in death sentences. "There's certain crimes you have to forfeit your life for," he said, in part because it's the will of the people. "As soon as Bart Whitaker gets executed I will feel safer, and there are other people who feel that way, too."...

If the board doesn't grant clemency, Whitaker plans to attend his son's execution. When his son looks out of the glassed-in chamber, he wants him to see a caring face among the crowd. Kent Whitaker already has nightmares about what he will witness.   "I hope the board will focus on how this execution will affect those of us who are living," he said. "We've all worked hard to get past our grief, and we're all going to be thrown back into that, realizing that Bart's gone too, that he was the last member of my immediate family. It looks like I'm going to be victimized all over again. What kind of justice is that?"

February 14, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Ohio Gov Kasich issues reprieve days before scheduled execution so clemency process can consider new juror letter

In this post last week, I asked via the post title "Are Governors considering capital clemency inclined to give great weight to capital jurors calling for a commutation?".  This question was prompted by the release of a letter from a a former juror in an Ohio capital case urging Governor John Kasich to grant a reprieve based on mitigating evidence that he said he had neverand that would have changed his vote at the penalty phase.

Today I just learned of a partial answer to my question in this new press report headlined "Kasich issues temporary reprieve for condemed killer." Here are the interesting details:

Gov. John Kasich on Thursday issued a temporary reprieve for Raymond Tibbetts, a Cincinnati man who was scheduled to be executed Tuesday.

“Kasich issued the reprieve in light of a letter he received on January 30 from a juror on Tibbetts’ case,” a statement from the governor’s office said. “Because the Ohio Parole Board issued its report and recommendation without considering the letter, Kasich has asked the board to convene a hearing for the purpose of considering the letter and the issue it raises.”

In his letter, the juror said that he would not have voted 20 years ago to execute Tibbetts, who killed his wife and an elderly man, if he’d known the extent to which Tibbetts was abused as a child.

Kasich reset the execution for Oct. 17.

UPDATE: A helpful reader showed me this link with Gov Kasich's full statement, as well as this local article which includes the prosecutor's reaction to this reprieve:

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, whose office sought a death sentence for Tibbetts, said he understands the governor's decision to delay, but he believes the original sentence should stand.

"It's pretty serious business when you're going to execute someone," Deters said. "It's frustrating for a lot of people, but the reality is this: If the governor has questions, it's his job to stop it.

"Would I have done something different? Maybe. But I don't know what he knows, and he's the governor."

February 8, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, February 02, 2018

Are Governors considering capital clemency inclined to give great weight to capital jurors calling for a commutation?

In my sentencing class, we have been talking about all the different players in the sentencing drama, and those stories often come into especially sharp relief as we move into our capital punishment unit.  And, coincidentally, after an execution in Texas last night, Ohio has the next scheduled execution in the US so that my students can have a front-row seat concerning all the players that become involved in the sentencing drama as a death sentence gets ever closer to being carried out.

Against that backdrop, the question in the title of this post arises as a result of the news, reported at the end of this article: Ohio "Governor Kasich has faced calls in recent weeks to spare Tibbetts because attorneys say he suffered from opioid addiction.  On Thursday, a former juror in Tibbetts’ capital murder trial wrote a letter urging Kasich to grant him a reprieve.  The juror said he has since seen mitigating evidence that he had never seen at trial and he would not have recommended the death penalty if he heard about Tibbetts’ history of abuse and addiction."

The full text of the intricate four-page letter from juror Ross Allen Geiger to Ohio Gov Kasich is available at this link.  It makes for an interesting read, and here an excerpt:

All of these things lead me to one conclusion and that is that the system was and seems to be today very flawed in this case.  The State of Ohio (through Hamilton County) called on me to fulfill a civic duty one that included an unenviable task of possibly recommending death for another man.  I fulfilled this duty faithfully. Governor, if we are going to have a legal process that can send criminals to death that includes a special phase for mitigation shouldn’t we get it right?  Shouldn’t the officers of the court (primarily the defense attorneys) treat the life or death phase with great attention to detail and the respect it deserves?

In conclusion, Tibbets is guilty and has forfeited forever his right to freedom.  If the death penalty is reserved for the “worst of the worst”, that is murderers that truly have no potential for redemption, then I ask you to grant mercy to Tibbets.  Based on what I know today I would not have recommended the death penalty....

February 2, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

US District Judge finds unconstitutional Florida's process to restore voting rights to disenfranchised felons

As reported in this local press article, "Florida routinely violates the constitutional rights of its citizens by permanently revoking the "fundamental right" to vote for anyone convicted of a felony, a federal judge ruled Thursday." Here is more about this notable ruling:

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said the Florida "scheme" unfairly relies on the personal support of the governor for citizens to regain the right to vote. In a strongly-worded ruling, he called the state's defense of voter disenfranchisement "nonsensical," a withering criticism of Gov. Rick Scott, the lead defendant in the case.

"Florida strips the right to vote from every man and woman who commits a felony," Walker wrote. "To vote again, disenfranchised citizens must kowtow before a panel of high-level government officials over which Florida's governor has absolute veto authority. No standards guide the panel. Its members alone must be satisfied that these citizens deserve restoration … The question now is whether such a system passes constitutional muster. It does not."

Walker wrote: "If any one of these citizens wishes to earn back their fundamental right to vote, they must plod through a gauntlet of constitutionally infirm hurdles. No more. When the risk of state-sanctioned viewpoint discrimination skulks near the franchise, it is the province and duty of this Court to excise such potential bias from infecting the clemency process."

The judge condemned a system that he said gives "unfettered discretion" to four partisan politicians, and cited as proof a comment Scott made at one hearing when he said: "We can do whatever we want."

Scott's office issued a statement late Thursday, hinting at an appeal. "The discretion of the clemency board over the restoration of felons' rights in Florida has been in place for decades and overseen by multiple governors," said a statement attributed to Scott's communications director, John Tupps. "The process is outlined in Florida's Constitution, and today's ruling departs from precedent set by the United States Supreme Court."...

Scott was the principal architect of the current system that requires all felons to wait at least five years after they complete their sentences, serve probation and pay all restitution, to apply for right to vote and other civil rights. Scott and the Cabinet, meeting as a clemency board, consider cases four times a year, and usually fewer than 100 cases each time. It can take a decade or longer for a case to be heard, and at present the state has a backlog of more than 10,000 cases.

Scott imposed the restrictions in 2011, soon after he was elected, with the support of three fellow Republicans who serve on the Cabinet, including Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, now a leading candidate for governor. Scott's actions in 2011 reversed a policy under which many felons, not including murderers and sex offenders, had their rights restored without application process and hearings. That streamlined process was instituted in 2007 by former Gov. Charlie Crist, then a Republican and now a Democratic member of Congress. "We've known this policy was unjust, and today a federal judge confirmed it's also a violation of constitutional rights," Crist wrote on Facebook....

Walker's decision came nine days after the state approved a ballot measure that, if passed in November, would automatically restore the voting rights of about 1.2 million felons, not including convicted murderers and sex offenders. That proposal will appear as Amendment 4 on the Nov. 6 ballot in Florida.

A leader of the initiative is Desmond Meade of Orlando, a law school graduate of Florida International University and a convicted felon waiting to have his rights restored. Meade said the judge's decision validated the work of more than a million Florida voters who signed petitions that helped get the measure on the ballot. "The system is broken, and now we know not only is it broken, but the courts are saying it's unconstitutional," Meade said.

Walker, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, ruled that Florida's lifetime ban on the right to vote violates the First and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which are the guarantees of freedom of expression, due process and equal protection under law. Throughout his 43-page ruling, Walker cited the arbitrariness of Florida's system. Felons routinely have been denied their voting rights because they have received speeding tickets or failed to pay child support.

"So the state then requires the former felon to conduct and comport herself to the satisfaction of the board's subjective — and frankly, mythical — standards," Walker wrote. "Courts view unfettered governmental discretion over protected constitutional rights with profound suspicion."...

The judge gave both sides in the case until Feb. 12 to file briefings on how to permanently remedy the constitutional deficiencies in Florida's system. Scott and Cabinet members are scheduled to hear the next round of clemency petitions in March.

District Judge Walker's 43-page opinion is available in full at this link.  Because I am a fan of expanding the franchise as much as possible, I am always pleased to see a ruling that has the potential effect of broadening voting rights and remedies.  But because Florida's restoration procedures are styled as a form of clemency and court have historically be chary about finding constitutional problems with or limits on clemency powers, I am unsure if this ruling will withstand likely appeals.

February 2, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Collateral consequences, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19)

Monday, December 25, 2017

Christmas season clemency headlines

President Trump only granted a single commutation this holiday season (details here), but the stories linked below document that a good number of state offenders in a good number of states were able to enjoy an extra merry Christmas thanks to Governors exercising their clemency powers:

Though I suspect this is not a comprehensive accounting of recent clemency actions by Governors, I still cannot help but notice that four of five Governors making holiday headlines with their clemency actions are Republicans.

December 25, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, December 22, 2017

Reviewing the "hope and skepticism" engendered by Prez Trump's Rubashkin commutation

As reported in this prior post, Prez Trump made some minor modern clemency history by commuting the 27-year prison sentence of Sholom Rubashkin. This NBC News piece, headlined "Trump’s first commutation met with hope and skepticism," provides some context and commentary on this decision:

After President Donald Trump commuted the 27-year sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, a former kosher meatpacking plant CEO convicted of financial fraud, prison reform advocates on Thursday immediately perked up.

Trump, they said, did something not even President Barack Obama — a strong proponent for reform — had done: commuted a sentence during his first year in office. It wasn't until 2011 when Obama — three years into his first term — commuted the sentence of a federal prisoner, although he had pardoned nine people a year before.

"I'm extremely excited about this and am very optimistic that Trump is going to surprise people," said Amy Povah, the founder of CAN-DO, a nonprofit that advocates clemency for federal prisoners convicted of drug crimes.  "I communicate with a lot of prisoners, and I guarantee you they woke up to renewed hope."

Still, the number of commutations that could roll out under the Trump administration remains unknown.  With so much at stake, some fighting for criminal justice reform are asking whether the Rubashkin case is a precursor of things to come — or just a rare one-off.  Neither the White House nor the Justice Department immediately responded to requests for comment Thursday....

Rubashkin had the support of both Democrats and Republicans in Washington for his commutation.  Notably, a push for the Obama administration to take action fell on deaf ears. That was even as Obama moved swiftly later in his final term to begin commuting sentences.  Obama granted clemency to 1,715 federal prisoners — more than any other U.S. president in history. The vast majority had been sentenced under mandatory minimum laws that were enacted in the 1980s and ’90s to address the scourge of drugs....

Kevin Ring, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said he's concerned that the bar might be set too high for inmates seeking commutations — given that Rubashkin's case was high-profile enough to attract the interest of lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.  He also questioned if certain types of prisoners — those not associated with white-collar crimes like Rubashkin — would benefit from clemency.  "Most are just families who don't wield any political influence," Ring said.....

In recent days, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has suggested Congress could tackle criminal justice reform in the next year.  That's important to Holly Harris, the executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, a lobbying group with advocates from the left and right.

She said a bipartisan bill in the House, the Prison Reform and Redemption Act, which would allow certain prisoners to serve the end of their sentences in halfway homes or home confinement, could be a catalyst in overhauling the system.  "Voters are very well educated and realize that one-size sentencing doesn't work," Harris said.  "The president of the United States has sent a really positive signal" with the release of Rubashkin.

While Trump ran as the "law and order" candidate, his lack of specifics on the criminal justice issue, apart from how it relates to immigration and national security, could end up going beyond what Obama started and result in sweeping change, Povah added.  "We know that he's an outsider, and I don't think he always necessarily cares what's conventional," she said.  "So I kind of hope that that can benefit people."

Recent related post:

December 22, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

"President Trump Commutes Sentence of Sholom Rubashkin"!?!?!

The title of this post is the headline of this press release from the White House this evening.  Here are the details:

Today, President Donald J. Trump commuted the prison sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, an action encouraged by bipartisan leaders from across the political spectrum, from Nancy Pelosi to Orrin Hatch.

Mr. Rubashkin is a 57-year-old father of 10 children.  He previously ran the Iowa headquarters of a family business that was the country’s largest kosher meat-processing company.  In 2009, he was convicted of bank fraud and sentenced thereafter to 27 years in prison.  Mr. Rubashkin has now served more than 8 years of that sentence, which many have called excessive in light of its disparity with sentences imposed for similar crimes.

This action is not a Presidential pardon.  It does not vacate Mr. Rubashkin’s conviction, and it leaves in place a term of supervised release and a substantial restitution obligation, which were also part of Mr. Rubashkin’s sentence.

The President’s review of Mr. Rubashkin’s case and commutation decision were based on expressions of support from Members of Congress and a broad cross-section of the legal community. A bipartisan group of more than 100 former high-ranking and distinguished Department of Justice (DOJ) officials, prosecutors, judges, and legal scholars have expressed concerns about the evidentiary proceedings in Mr. Rubashkin’s case and the severity of his sentence.  Additionally, more than 30 current Members of Congress have written letters expressing support for review of Mr. Rubashkin’s case.

Because I have some personal history working on this case, I am not inclined to comment at great length beyond wanting to here praise President Trump for bringing some (non-political?) attention to his historic clemency powers through this grant. I also will link to some prior posts about this long-controversial case.

Some of many prior posts on the Rubashkin case:

December 20, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18)

Monday, November 20, 2017

Hasn't Prez Trump has already pardoned a turkey before this week's traditional ceremony?

69684e46-ba40-4d95-b4e1-301af475e2e7The question in the title of this post was prompted, with a tongue in check, by an email I received this evening with the subject-line "Vote: Which Turkey Should President Trump Pardon?."  The email came with the picture reprinted here, as well as the following text and link:

Tomorrow, President Donald J. Trump will pardon the National Thanksgiving Turkey in a ceremony in the Rose Garden. This year, the President will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the National Thanksgiving Turkey presentation, as he reflects on our Nation’s rich Thanksgiving traditions and wishes American families a safe and healthy holiday.  Vote here.

Clicking through to the link brought up pictures of the turkeys named Drumstick and Wishbone, but I kept thinking there should be other voting options.  Prez Trump has, of course, already pardoned one person earlier this year, and there has been plenty of talk about other possible pardons.

Notably, around this time back in 2009, I had a couple of posts lamenting that Prez Obama had failed to use his clemency powers in any way before it became time for him to participate in the traditional turkey pardon spectacle (a few of these posts are linked below).  In fact, as revealed in this DOJ Pardon Attorney statistics page, Prez Obama and Prez Bush and Prez Clinton all started their presidencies with two full years in which they failed to use their historic clemency powers in any way.

But Prez Trump is unlike his predecessors in so many ways, and his use of the pardon power is yet another example.  Specifically, as folks must surely recall, Prez Trump pardoned attorney former Sheriff Joe Arpaio back in August.  It now appears that either Drumstick and Wishbone will be next, and then who knows.

Posts from 2009 about the last, first Prez Thanksgiving pardon event:

November 20, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, October 20, 2017

Federal judge rules that Prez pardon for Joe Arpaio does not call for vacating his contempt conviction

As reported in this Politico piece, a "federal judge has ruled that President Donald Trump's pardon of former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio ends his prosecution for criminal contempt of court, but does not wipe out the guilty verdict she returned or any other rulings in the case."   The full (and short) ruling is available at this link, and here is more about it:

In her order Thursday, Phoenix-based U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton rejected arguments from Arpaio's lawyers and Justice Department prosecutors that the longtime Maricopa County sheriff was entitled to have all rulings in the case vacated, including the guilty verdict the judge delivered in July after a five-day trial.

“The power to pardon is an executive prerogative of mercy, not of judicial recordkeeping," Bolton wrote, quoting an appeals court ruling. "To vacate all rulings in this case would run afoul of this important distinction. The Court found Defendant guilty of criminal contempt. The President issued the pardon. Defendant accepted. The pardon undoubtedly spared Defendant from any punishment that might otherwise have been imposed. It did not, however, 'revise the historical facts' of this case."

Arpaio, known for his tough stance against illegal immigration and for humiliating treatment of prisoners, was charged with contempt for defying another federal judge's order aimed at preventing ethnic profiling of Latinos. Trump pardoned the 85-year-old Arpaio in August while he was awaiting sentencing. The official White House statement stressed Arpaio's history of public service, but the president indicated in earlier remarks that he considered the ex-sheriff's conviction unfair because he was found guilty "for doing his job." Trump also said Arpaio should have received a jury trial, something courts have said is not required if no penalty of more than a year in jail is sought.

Arpaio's attorneys filed an appeal Thursday evening that will take the issue to the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. "We will challenge that order," Arpaio lawyer Jack Wilenchik told POLITICO shortly after the judge's ruling was handed down. He said Bolton had jumbled the facts regarding a key precedent: the case of a Tyson Foods lobbyist who was pardoned by President Bill Clinton after being convicted of giving illegal gifts to Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy.

The battle over the guilty verdict and other rulings is largely symbolic since the prosecution, the defense and the judge all appear to agree Arpaio's prosecution is over and he cannot be punished for the conduct that led to the case. Arpaio's attorneys argue it is unfair for the verdict to remain on the book since the pardon effectively wipes out Arpaio's ability to appeal that decision. However, some ethics-in-government groups and Democratic lawmakers urged the judge to reject the pardon altogether as an unconstitutional intrusion by the executive branch into the judiciary branch's ability to ensure that its orders are enforced.

A few prior related posts:

October 20, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Collateral consequences, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Big new report provides state-by-state guide to expungement and rights restoration

Report-coverAs detailed in this new post over at the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, the folks at CCRC have just published this big new report on state expungement and rights restoration practices under the title "Forgiving and Forgetting in American Justice: A 50-State Guide to Expungement and Restoration of Rights." This CCRC post provides this account of the new report's coverage and goals:

This report catalogues and analyzes the various provisions for relief from the collateral consequences of conviction that are now operating in each state, including judicial record-sealing and certificates of relief, executive pardon, and administrative nondiscrimination statutes. Its goal is to facilitate a national conversation about how those who have a criminal record may best regain their legal rights and social status.

Given the millions of Americans who have a criminal record, and the proliferation of laws and policies excluding them from a wide range of opportunities and benefits, there is a critical need for reliable and accessible relief provisions to maximize the chances that these individuals can live productive and law-abiding lives after completion of their court-imposed sentences. Whatever their form, relief provisions must reckon with the easy availability of criminal records, and the pervasive discrimination that frustrates the rehabilitative goals of the justice system.

It is not the report’s purpose to recommend any specific approach to relief. Rather, our goal is simply to survey the present legal landscape for the benefit of the policy discussions now underway in legislatures across the country. We are mindful of the fact that very little empirical research has been done to measure outcomes of the various schemes described, many of which are still in their infancy. It is therefore hard to say with any degree of certainty which approach works best to reintegrate individuals with a record into their communities. At the same time, we hope that our description of state relief mechanisms will inform the work of lawyers and other advocates currently working to assist affected individuals in dealing with the lingering burdens imposed by an adverse encounter with the justice system.

The title of the report provides a framework for analyzing different types of relief provisions. For most of our history, executive pardon constituted the principal way that persons convicted of a felony could “pay their debt to society” and regain their rights as citizens. This traditional symbol of official forgiveness was considered ineffective by mid-20th century reformers, who sought to shift responsibility for restoration to the courts. The reforms they proposed took two quite different approaches: One authorized judges to limit public access to an individual’s record through expungement or sealing, and the other assigned judges something akin to the executive’s pardoning role, through deferred dispositions and certificates of relief. These two approaches to restoration have existed side by side for more than half a century and have never been fully reconciled.

Today, with a new focus on reentry and rehabilitation, policy-makers are again debating whether it is more effective to forgive a person’s past crimes (through pardon or judicial dispensation) or to forget them (through record-sealing or expungement). Despite technological advances and now-pervasive background-checking practices, many states have continued to endorse the forgetting approach, at least for less serious offenses and records not resulting in conviction. At the same time, national law reform organizations have proposed more transparent judicial forgiving or dispensing mechanisms. While the analytical model of “forgiving v. forgetting” is necessarily imperfect given the wide variety of relief provisions operating in the states, it seems to capture the basic distinction between an approach that would mitigate or avoid the adverse consequences of past crimes, and an approach that would limit access to information about those crimes.

The report organizes relief provisions into six categories: executive pardon, judicial record-closing, deferred adjudication, certificates of relief, fair employment and licensing laws, and restoration of voting rights. The judgments made about the availability of each form of relief, reflected in color-coded maps, are in many cases necessarily subjective, and we have done our best to explain our approach in each case.

More detailed information about different forms of relief is available from the state-by-state summaries that are the heart of the report. Citations to relevant laws and comparisons of the laws of each state are included in the 50-state charts in Appendices A & B. Up-to-date summaries and charts are available from the Restoration of Rights Project, which additionally includes in-depth discussions of the law and policy in its state-by-state “profiles.” This information is updated by the authors on a real-time basis, and we expect to republish this report from time to time when warranted by changes in the law.

October 12, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Wishing for comparable efforts to contest severity in light of legal attacks on leniency of Arpaio pardon

The title of this post is my reaction to this Politico article headlined "Legal groups move to challenge Trump's Arpaio pardon."  The article reports on just some of the copious efforts to contest Prez Donald Trump's first use of his clemency authority.  Here are the basics:

Two advocacy groups moved on Monday to challenge Donald Trump’s pardon of controversial former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, alleging that the president's move was unconstitutional because it undermined the power of the federal judiciary.

A public interest law firm, the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, sought to file an amicus brief in an Arizona district court, where Arpaio is seeking to vacate a conviction after Trump granted him a pardon last month. The brief was initially turned down by a judge on procedural grounds.  A second group, the Protect Democracy Project, also filed an amicus brief on Monday arguing that the pardon is unconstitutional....

The [MacArthur Justice Center] brief contends that Trump’s pardon of Arpaio violated the Constitution because “it has the purpose and effect of eviscerating the judicial power to enforce constitutional rights.”  The MacArthur Justice Center lawyers argue that, while broad, presidential pardon power can not be used to undermine the judiciary’s ability to enforce the Bill of Rights or the Fourteenth Amendment.  The Arpaio pardon, the lawyers argue, “eviscerates this Court’s enforcement endorsing Arpaio’s refusal to comply with federal court orders.” The brief also takes issue with the breadth of Trump’s pardon, noting that the “text of the pardon is so broad that it purports to allow Arpaio to run for Sheriff again...and escape criminal liability for future contempt.”

Protect Democracy’s lawyers similarly contend that the pardon violates the separation of powers “because it unconstitutionally interferes with the inherent powers of the Judicial Branch.” They also argue that the pardon goes beyond the president’s power — “We are aware of no case in this Court, the Ninth Circuit or the Supreme Court that has upheld a pardon matching the extraordinary circumstances here, where the contempt is used to enforce court orders protecting the rights of private litigants,” the lawyers write — and violates due process.

This extended post by William Jacobson over at Legal insurrection, headlined "DOJ sides with Joe Arpaio, as groups ask Ct to declare Pardon unconstitutional," rightly notes the uphill battle these arguments face and concludes that "it seems highly unlikely that the court would declare that a pardon which on its face is constitutional is not because it involves contempt of court." It also details and links the four briefs sought to be filed against the Apraio pardon:

I full comprehend all the political and legal reasons why the Arpaio pardon bothers folks, and I will never tell thoughtful advocates that they are wasting their time by filing amicus brief even when the law seems against them.  But, as the title of this post indicated, I still rue the reality that partisan politics so readily energizes a bunch of folks spend lots of time and resources attacking one act of remarkable leniency while so many acts of remarkable severity in our criminal justice systems so rarely engenders even a peep from outside advocates.

September 12, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

US Sentencing Commission releases big new analysis of Prez Obama's 2014 Clemency Initiative

I am excited to see that the US Sentencing Commission has this morning released this big new report titled simply "An Analysis of the Implementation of the 2014 Clemency Initiative." I hope to find the time in the coming days to dig into many of the report's particulars; for now, I can just reprint the text of this USSC overview page about the report and add a few comments:

Report Summary

This report analyzes the sentence commutations granted under the 2014 Clemency Initiative.  It provides data concerning the offenders who received a sentence commutation under the initiative and the offenses for which they were incarcerated.  It examines the extent of the sentence reductions resulting from the commutations and the conditions placed on commutations.  It also provides an analysis of the extent to which these offenders appear to have met the announced criteria for the initiative.  Finally, it provides an analysis of the number of offenders incarcerated at the time the initiative was announced who appear to have met the eligibility criteria for the initiative and the number of those offenders who received a sentence commutation.

Key Findings

The key findings of this report are:

  • President Obama made 1,928 grants of clemency during his presidency.  Of them, 1,716 were commutations of sentence, more commutations than any other President has granted.

  • Of the 1,928 grants of clemency that President Obama made, 1,696 were sentence commutations under the 2014 Clemency Initiative.

  • The commutations in sentence granted through the Clemency Initiative resulted in an average sentence reduction of 39.0 percent, or approximately 140 months.

  • Of the 1,696 offenders who received a commuted sentence under the Clemency Initiative, 86 (5.1%) met all the announced Clemency Initiative factors for consideration.

  • On April 24, 2014, there were 1,025 drug trafficking offenders incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons who appeared to meet all the announced Clemency Initiative factors.  Of them, 54 (5.3%) received clemency from President Obama.

  • By January 19, 2017, there were 2,687 drug trafficking offenders who had been incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons when the Clemency Initiative was announced and who appeared to meet all the announced Clemency Initiative factors. Of them, 92 (3.4%) received clemency from President Obama.

Back in 2014 when the clemency initiative was announced and certain criteria emphasized (basics here), I had an inkling that the criteria would end up both over-inclusive and under-inclusive. I figured Prez Obama would ultimately not want to grant clemency to everyone who met the criteria announced and also would want to grant clemency to some who did not meet all the criteria. That said, I am still surprised that only 5% of those prisoners who got clemency meet all the criteria and that only about 5% of those prisoners who met all the criteria get clemency. (Based on a quick scan of the USSC report, it seems the vast majority of those who got clemency had some criminal history, which put most of the recipients outside the stated DOJ criteria.)

These additional insights and data points from the USSC report highlight what really seemed to move a clemency applicant toward the front of the line:

A review of the offenders granted clemency under the Initiative shows that at some point the Clemency Initiative was limited to drug trafficking offenders, as all the offenders who received commutations under the Initiative had committed a drug trafficking offense.  This focus was not identified when the Initiative was announced and no formal public announcement was made later that the Initiative had been limited to drug trafficking offenders....

Almost all Clemency Initiative offenders (95.3%) had been convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty.  Most (89.7%) were charged in such a way that the mandatory minimum penalty that applied in the case was ten years or longer.  Indeed, most of the Clemency Initiative offenders (88.2%) received a sentence of 20 years or longer, or life imprisonment.

In the end, then, it appears the 2014 Clemency Initiative turned out to be almost exclusively about identifying and reducing some sentences of some federal drug offenders subject to long mandatory prison terms. Somewhat disappointingly, this USSC report does not appear to speak to whether and how offenders who received clemency were distinct from the general federal prison population in case processing terms. My own rough research suggests that a great disproportion of those who got clemency were subject to extreme mandatory minimums because they opted to put the government to its burden of proof at trial rather than accept a plea deal. Also, if the goal ultimately was to remedy the worst applications of mandatory minimum sentences, it is not surprising that a lot of clemency recipients had some criminal history that would serve to both enhance the applicable mandatory minimum AND make an otherwise lower-level offender not eligible for statutory safety-valve relief from the mandatory term.

September 5, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Ohio Gov delays multiple executions while denying clemency for double murderer slated to die later this month

As noted and lamented in this recent Fair Punishment Project report, "Prisoners on Ohio’s Execution List Defined by Intellectual Impairment, Mental Illness, Trauma, and Young Age," as of the end of August 2017, Ohio had scheduled 26 executions to take place between now and 2020.  But as of the start of September 2017, thanks to the clemency/reprieve powers of Ohio Gov John Kasich and as detailed here, Ohio has only 18 executions scheduled to take place between now and 2020 with eight others being pushed back to 2021 and 2022.

The delaying of numerous execution was explained in this press release, which also notes that Gov Kasich has (unsurprisingly) denied clemency for a double murderer still scheduled to be executed on September 13:

Gov. John R. Kasich has denied a request for executive clemency from Gary Otte who was convicted in Cuyahoga County for the 1992 robbery and murder of 61 year-old Robert Wasikowski and 45 year-old Sharon Kostura at their respective apartments in Parma, OH.  The Governor’s decision follows the advice of the Ohio Parole Board, who on February 10, 2017, recommended against clemency for Otte by a vote of 11-0.

Additionally, in consultation with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, the governor updated Ohio’s current execution schedule.  After the U.S. Supreme Court rejected claims by Ohio inmates that the state’s protocol was unconstitutional, allowing the execution of Ronald Phillips to proceed in July, the state reviewed the existing schedule to ensure Ohio would meet the goal of conducting court-ordered executions in a humane and professional manner.

Looking over the revised execution schedule, I surmise that the folks at the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction were not too keen on having to gear up for an execution scheduled nearly every month for the next two years and so they urged Gov Kasich to set a revised schedule that now has an execution taking place only, roughly, every other month through the next five years.

Notably, there are, as detailed here, another 123 persons on Ohio's death row in addition the the 26 with current execution date. That means that even if Ohio were to keep up the pace of six execution per year going forward after 2022, it would take until 2042 to carry out the sentences only of those currently condemned to die. That reality, in turn, lead me to start speculating about who might be governor of Ohio in a quarter century and whether she might be a proponent or opponent of capital punishment.

September 3, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Recent items of note from the Collateral Consequences Resource Center

As regular readers know, I have made a habit of noting here some posts from the Collateral Consequences Resource Center because the topics covered there are so interesting and get so little attention in the mainstream media (or many other places in the blogosphere).  So are some recent posts of note from CCRC:

August 30, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Collateral consequences | Permalink | Comments (1)

More context for contemplating Prez Trump's pardon of Joe Arpaio

Yesterday I noticed two interesting pieces providing some context for Prez Trump's decision last week to make his first use of the clemency power a pardon for Joe Arpaio (basics here).  Here are their headlines, links and leads:

From CNN here, "This chart shows why Trump's pardon of Arpaio was so unusual":

It was an atypical pardon from an atypical president.  When President Donald Trump granted his very first pardon to Arizonan former sheriff Joe Arpaio, he bucked process and precedent by circumventing the Department of Justice's unit dedicated to making recommendations on such requests.  But he also bucked decades of precedent for how recent pardons have nearly always been granted: a majority have come in the last year of a president's term, they usually come in groups of a dozen or more and they cancel convictions averaging more than two decades old.

Trump's pardon of Arpaio marks one of the earliest pardons in a president's term and one of the only pardons granted alone, according to a CNN analysis of Department of Justice data ranging back nearly three decades. And we turned that data into a chart that shows how, historically, this pardon sticks out in all three major areas: numbers of years into a president's term, number of pardons issued at once and time since the conviction or sentencing.

From FiveThirtyEight here, "The Arpaio Pardon Has Plenty Of Precedents … That Got Other Presidents In Trouble":

Was President Trump’s pardon of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, issued on a Friday night as a deadly hurricane barreled toward the Gulf Coast, unprecedented?  Or just unpopular?

Several political allies and foes immediately condemned the move as inappropriate and an insult to the justice system. But most of the criticized characteristics of Arpaio’s pardon have at least some parallels to previous ones. The number of controversial characteristics of the Arpaio pardon, however, is unusual and raises questions about the political fallout that Trump will face. The Arpaio pardon, in other words, does have historical precedents (as Trump said on Monday) — just not good ones.

Recent prior related posts:

August 30, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (24)

Monday, August 28, 2017

Lots of commentary and criticism in wake of Prez Trump's Arpaio pardon

There has been no shortage of commentary and criticism of Prez Trump's decision on Friday to make his first use of the clemency power a pardon for Joe Arpaio (basics here). Here is a not-quite-random, not-so-systematic sampling of stories and commentaries:

In accord with a lot of the commentary here, I am troubled by how Prez Trump first decided to use his historic clemency powers.  But, as this Guardian piece usefully highlights, many recent presidents have used their clemency authority in ways seemingly motivated unduly by political commitments rather than purely by concerns about justice and mercy.  I want to believe that the current President is capable and eager to have concerns about justice and mercy impact at least some of his future clemency decisions, but his track record on this front and others certainly does not inspire optimism.

August 28, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (35)

Friday, August 25, 2017

As he had hinted, Prez Trump decides to make his first use of the clemency power a pardon for Joe Arpaio

As reported here by Politico, "President Donald Trump pardoned attorney former Sheriff Joe Arpaio on Friday."  Here is more:

Arpaio had been convicted of federal contempt. The outspoken immigration opponent has long backed Trump. The president teased a pardon during a campaign rally in Phoenix on Tuesday. The White House cited a lifetime of public service in announcing Apraio's pardon.

I cannot yet find any official White House statement about this action, but I will update this post if and when one appears.

A few prior related posts:

UPDATE: This Reuters piece provides more context on the pardon as well as reaction thereto. Commentor Joe helpfully noticed that the official White House statement appears on the ABC News Twitter feed, and as of early Saturday morning I cannot yet find that statement on the White House website.

August 25, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (24)

"Jeff Sessions Should Be Screaming Bloody Murder About a Potential Joe Arpaio Pardon"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting Reason commentary authored by Mike Riggs.  Here are excerpts:

President Donald Trump did not pardon former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio at his Arizona rally on Tuesday, but CNN reports that the paperwork and accompanying talking points are ready.  Should he pardon Arpaio at some point in the near future, it would be both completely legal and an affront to everything his attorney general supposedly holds dear.

"One of the talking points is that Arpaio served his country for 50 years in the military, the Drug Enforcement Administration and as Arizona's Maricopa County sheriff," CNN's Kaitlan Collins reports, "and that it is not appropriate to send him to prison for 'enforcing the law' and 'working to keep people safe.'"  Arpaio is not facing six months behind bars for "enforcing the law" or "working to keep people safe," any more than drug dealers are sentenced to prison for "making people happy."  Arpaio disregarded a judge's order and was convicted of felony contempt of court.  He did the crime, by his own logic and that of the U.S. Attorney General, and he should now do some time.

But if Trump decides to spare the 85-year-old Arpaio six months of incarceration — we won't know until October if he'll actually serve any time behind bars — he has that power. Yes, it would signal a break with historical precedent, but that's really the only constraint on executive clemency....

If anyone in Trump's orbit should be discouraging him from pardonning Arpaio, it's Sessions.  When Pres. Bill Clinton pardoned financier Marc Rich in the final hours of his presidency, Rich had not even stood trial.  He fled the U.S. in 1983 after being indicted for trading with Iran during the hostage crisis, and spent the rest of his life living comfortably abroad.  During his absence, Rich's family in the U.S. funneled more than a million dollars to the Democratic National Committee, the senatorial campaign of Hillary Clinton, and the Clinton Presidential Library.  When Clinton eventually pardoned him at the behest of Israel's government, the prosecutors who worked to indict Rich were understandably furious, as were many members of Congress.

"From what I've seen, based on the law of bribery in the United States, if a person takes a thing of value for himself or for another person that influences their decision in a matter of their official capacity, then that could be a criminal offense,'' Sen. Jeff Sessions told the New York Times in 2001.  One might think Sessions would feel similarly about the current president rewarding a campaign surrogate with a Get Out of Jail Free card.

Sessions also objected to the clemency initiative, which Obama launched in 2014 and continued through the end of his second term.  This was the most systematic attempt to heal the wounds of a stupid war since President Jimmy Carter pardoned men who evaded the draft for Vietnam.  Sessions, however, declared Obama's efforts to shorten insanely long drug sentences a betrayal of the American justice system.  "To unilaterally determine that a sentence was unjustified simply because the president disagrees with the underlying criminal justice policy is a thumb in the eye of the law enforcement officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, court and prison personnel who put time and resources into these cases," Sessions said in 2014.

Just a month ago, Sessions said he was committed to holding law-breaking cops accountable.  "Just as I'm committed to defending law enforcement who lawfully have to use deadly force to defend themselves while engaged in their work," he told the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, "I will also use the power of the office I'm entrusted with to hold any officer responsible who violates the law."

If Arpaio is an exception to Sessions' position on executive clemency and holding criminal cops accountable, I can't wait to hear his explanation.

A few prior related posts:

August 25, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Missouri Gov halts scheduled execution and appoints Board of Inquiry to investigate innocence claim

As reported in this local article, today just "before Marcellus Williams was to be put to death for the 1998 murder of a former newspaper reporter, Gov. Eric Greitens issued a stay of execution and appointed a board to look into the case." Here is why:

“A sentence of death is the ultimate, permanent punishment,” Greitens said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “To carry out the death penalty, the people of Missouri must have confidence in the judgment of guilt. In light of new information, I am appointing a Board of Inquiry in this case.”

Williams’ attorneys have been pleading for a stay, arguing that Missouri was on the verge of executing the wrong person. Williams, 48, was sentenced to death in 2001 for killing Felicia Gayle, who had been a reporter with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Gayle was stabbed 43 times with a butcher knife in her home. Williams was scheduled to be executed in 2015, but the Missouri Supreme Court stayed his lethal injection, allowing him time to obtain new DNA testing.

DNA testing of the murder weapon, conducted in 2016 and using technology that was not available at the time of the killing, shows Williams is not a match for the male DNA found on the murder weapon.

The Missouri Supreme Court last week turned down his attorneys’ attempt to have the execution stopped. The court did not provide a reason....

Greitens said he would appoint a five-member board that will include retired judges and have the power to subpoena evidence and compel witnesses to testify. The board will look into the case and make a recommendation to the governor as to whether Williams should be executed or have his death sentence commuted....

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Josh Hawley told The Washington Post this week that based on “non-DNA evidence in this case our office is confident in Marcellus Williams’ guilt and plans to move forward.” Among the other evidence cited by Hawley’s office is testimony by Williams’ former cellmate and an ex-girlfriend implicating him in the murder. Some of the victim’s belongings were found in a car Williams drove the day she was killed.

Opponents of the death penalty say Williams’ case should help fuel the push to end the practice in Missouri. “Marcellus Williams’ case is a classic example of the inherent injustice of the death penalty system,” said Zeke Johnson, senior director of programs at Amnesty International USA, “and why it should be altogether abolished.”

Williams was set to face lethal injection at 6 p.m. Tuesday if not for the governor’s order 

Gov. Greitens' full two-page statement is available at this link.

August 22, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Considering clemency echoes of a possible Arpaio pardon as Prez Trump's first

This new Daily Beast piece, headlined "Donald Trump May Circumvent the Usual Process to Pardon Sheriff Joe Arpaio," provides some notable quotes from notable federal clemency excerpts in reaction to Prez Trump's indication that he is considering a pardon for a high-profile law enforcement official. Here are excerpts:

President Donald Trump has learned about his power to issue pardons.  And in the last week, White House aides have suggested that he use his first one on a controversial choice: Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the schismatic Arizona lawman convicted of contempt of court.

In recent days, speculation has mounted that Trump will follow through on this suggestion at a campaign rally in Phoenix on Tuesday.  Should he do so, it will be a unique moment in modern presidential politics.  Trump will have given the first pardon of his presidency to someone for what appears to be purely political reasons and he will have done so without going through the normal review process.

The possibility has left some clemency advocates feeling a little queasy. “There are literally hundreds of no-name people we’ve never heard of, who will never been in the newspaper, who are not cause célèbres, who have had applications waiting and waiting and waiting,” said P.S. Ruckman, political science professor at Northern Illinois University. “They’re sick to their stomach right now reading about Arpaio getting a potential pardon, that’s breaking their heart.”

Like George W. Bush and Barack Obama before him, Trump has proven stingy with the pardon power granted to the president.  And that’s probably a generous way to put it.  Two hundred days into his presidency, he has yet to pardon anyone.  This isn’t unprecedented. It took Obama more than 600 days to issue a pardon.  He nearly broke the record for fewest pardons, though he granted more clemencies than any other president by shortening the sentences of more than a thousand people....

Ruckman said that most American presidents started pardoning people in their first month in office, and kept pardoning at a regular clip through their administrations.  The drop-off in pardons is a relatively new change.  And while high-profile grants of clemency to political allies get the most press — think Bush’s commutation of Scooter Libby’s sentence or Bill Clinton’s pardon of Democratic mega-donor Marc Rich — the vast majority of people who get pardoned never become household names....

Were Trump to give his first pardon to Arpaio, who endorsed him during the Republican presidential primary, Ruckman argues that it would undercut the populist message from the campaign.  “It would give people the sense that only famous people, cause célèbres, and connected people are going to get pardons from Trump,” Ruckman said.

Sam Morison, an attorney who worked in the Justice Department’s pardon office for more than a decade, predicted Trump will pardon Arpaio when he goes to Arizona, though he added that it would send a terrible message. “He hasn’t even been sentenced yet, he’s just been convicted,” Morison said.  “And he’s not contrite, he doesn’t accept responsibility — quite the opposite. So in that sense, it’s very unusual.  And the only reason he’s getting any traction at all is that he’s a well-known political figure. So it is special pleading of the worst kind.”

Prior related post:

UPDATE: This local report on a speech Tuesday night by Prez Trump provides the latest news on this front via its headline: "Trump didn't pardon Joe Arpaio in Phoenix — but hints that he will."

August 22, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Clemency and Pardons, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, August 21, 2017

NACDL and FAMM launch "State Clemency Project"

Site_logosThis new NACDL press release reports on an exciting new project that provides another example of new and important state-level criminal justice and sentencing work afoot these days.  Here are the details:

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), with support from the Foundation for Criminal Justice (FCJ), announce today a major state-focused clemency initiative, the NACDL/FAMM State Clemency Project, a program designed to help to recruit, train, and provide resource support to pro bono attorneys who will assist state prisoners to submit petitions to have their sentences commuted.  Outreach has already begun to several governors' offices across the nation.  And Governor Cuomo of New York has just announced a partnership with the NACDL/FAMM State Clemency Project to develop the necessary processes and procedures to enable volunteer lawyers through the project to help prisoners seeking clemency pursuant to the Governor's initiative. The Project will provide logistical support for the governor's initiative, among other ways, by recruiting and training volunteer lawyers to help prisoners apply for clemency.

"We are committed to provide training and resource support to volunteer lawyers to facilitate a process through which applicants can have access to counsel who can expeditiously submit a petition that makes the case for a second chance," said NACDL Executive Director Norman L. Reimer.  "We want the executive authority to see clearly that many offenders have learned from past mistakes and are ready to safely and productively return home."

"Those individuals who have worked hard to rehabilitate themselves and take responsibility for their mistakes deserve a chance to get out of the penalty box.  Their families, communities, and state will be better off with their release," said FAMM President Kevin Ring.  "We're excited to work with NACDL and Governor Cuomo on this important initiative and we look forward to partnering in other states."

"NACDL is proud to build on its experience as a Clemency Project 2014 founding partner in order to make this state-level clemency project a success," said NACDL President Rick Jones. "As a New York City defense attorney, I am especially pleased that Governor Cuomo is taking the lead in this effort.  Our goal is to provide many hundreds of applicants with qualified counsel who will submit first-rate petitions.  And our hope is that other Governors will launch their own programs, and we pledge to support them. It is long past time to recognize that people can change and that redemption is possible. This program recognizes that fundamental truth."

This project brings NACDL's and FAMM's collective experience as partners of the federal-level Clemency Project 2014 (CP 2014), to state-level clemency efforts. CP 2014, a partnership that also included the American Bar Association, American Civil Liberties Union and the Federal Public and Community Defenders, provided pro bono legal assistance to prisoners seeking to have their sentences commuted under specific criteria set by the White House.

Similarly the NACDL/FAMM State Clemency Project will focus on training lawyers to identify eligible prisoners based on criteria provided participating state executives.  Project staff will work with state agencies to devise the most efficient way to connect applicants to volunteers, provide essential applicant information, and submit well-crafted petitions.  The Project will have a state-based focus that will respond to the criteria for articulated by each governor or state clemency authority, and will rely heavily upon local attorneys, law firms and law clinics.

This link provides the press release from Gov. Cuomo's offices stating "Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced a first-in-the-nation partnership between a state and a coalition of legal organizations to expand New York's pro bono clemency program."  And more information about the NACDL/FAMM State Clemency Project with instructions on how to sign up to volunteer can be found here at the project website.  

Kudos to NACDL and FAMM and others involved in this project for building on the wisdom and successes achieved through the federal Clemency Project 2014.  Despite facing an array of challenges, CP14 ended up playing a huge role in helping secure clemency relief for many hundreds of federal prisons.  It would be amazing if this new project can achieve similar successes in a number of states in the months and years ahead.  (For those interested in a review of some recent federal clemency developments, the most recent issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter has a group of articles curated by Professor Mark Osler looking broadly at Prez Obama's overall clemency initiative.) 

August 21, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 14, 2017

More notable talk by Prez Trump about possible use of his pardon authority

As noted in this post from a few weeks ago, Prez Trump earlier this summer got more than a few media members and academic talking about the historic presidential clemency authority when he reportedly starting asking about his whether he could pardon folks potential caught up in the on-going Russia investigation.  Today brings more summer pardon talk from Prez Trump, but with a notably different (though also controversial) target.  This Fox News piece, headlined "Trump 'seriously considering' a pardon for ex-Sheriff Joe Arpaio," provides the details:

President Trump may soon issue a pardon for Joe Arpaio, the colorful former Arizona sheriff who was found guilty two weeks ago of criminal contempt for defying a state judge’s order to stop traffic patrols targeting suspected undocumented immigrants.  In his final years as Maricopa County sheriff, Arpaio had emerged as a leading opponent of illegal immigration.

“I am seriously considering a pardon for Sheriff Arpaio,” the president said Sunday, during a conversation with Fox News at his club in Bedminster, N.J. “He has done a lot in the fight against illegal immigration.  He’s a great American patriot and I hate to see what has happened to him.”  Trump said the pardon could happen in the next few days, should he decide to do so.

Arpaio, 85, was convicted by U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton of misdemeanor contempt of court for willfully disregarding an Arizona judge’s order in 2011 to stop the anti-immigrant traffic patrols. Arpaio had maintained the law enforcement patrols for 17 months thereafter.  The man who built a controversial national reputation as “America’s toughest sheriff” admitted he prolonged his patrols, but insisted he did not intend to break the law because one of his former attorneys did not explain to him the full measure of restrictions contained in the court order.

He is expected to be sentenced on Oct. 5 and could face up to six months in jail.  However, since he is 85 years old and has no prior convictions, some attorneys doubt he will receive any jail time.

Citing his long service as “an outstanding sheriff,” the president said Arpaio is admired by many Arizona citizens who respected his tough-on-crime approach.  Arpaio’s widely publicized tactics included forcing inmates to wear pink underwear and housing them in desert tent camps where temperatures often climbed well past 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  He also controversially brought back chain gains, including a voluntary chain gang for women prisoners.

Civil liberties and prisoner advocates as well as supporters of immigrants’ rights have criticized Arpaio for years, culminating in his prosecution.  He lost his bid for reelection last year. “Is there anyone in local law enforcement who has done more to crack down on illegal immigration than Sheriff Joe?” asked Trump. “He has protected people from crimes and saved lives.  He doesn’t deserve to be treated this way.”

Stopping the flow of undocumented immigrants across the southern U.S. border was a central theme of the president’s campaign. Arpaio endorsed Trump in January 2016. Trump indicated he may move quickly should he decide to issue a presidential pardon. “I might do it right away, maybe early this week. I am seriously thinking about it.”

Trump could decide to await the outcome of an appeal by Arpaio’s lawyers who contend their client’s case should have been decided by a jury, not a judge.  In a statement after the verdict, his attorneys stated, “The judge’s verdict is contrary to what every single witness testified in the case.  Arpaio believes that a jury would have found in his favor, and that it will.”

Reached Monday for reaction to the possible pardon, Arpaio expressed surprise that Trump was aware of his legal predicament. “I am happy he understands the case,” he told Fox News. “I would accept the pardon because I am 100 percent not guilty.”  The former sheriff said he will continue to be a strong supporter of the president regardless of whether he receives a pardon.  But he also voiced concern that a pardon might cause problems for Trump, saying, “I would never ask him for a pardon, especially if it causes heat. I don’t want to do anything that would hurt the president.”

Trump has not granted any pardons so far in his presidency.

While I was putting this post together, I received an email with a link to this ACLU comment on a possible Arpaio pardon.  The comment closes with these notably sharp statements:

ACLU Deputy Legal Director Cecillia Wang had this reaction to media reports that Trump may pardon Arpaio: “President Trump would be literally pardoning Joe Arpaio’s flagrant violation of federal court orders that prohibited the illegal detention of Latinos.  He would undo a conviction secured by his own career attorneys at the Justice Department.  Make no mistake: This would be an official presidential endorsement of racism.”

August 14, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Clemency and Pardons, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Could Prez Trump follow Prez Obama's lead by making notable and significant use of his clemency powers?

The question in the title of this post is my somewhat cheeky effort to put a kind of sentencing spin on the news from the Washington Post that Prez Trump has been "discussing the president’s authority to grant pardons" as part of an effort to limit or undercut special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Here is a bit more:

Trump has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe, according to one of those people. A second person said Trump’s lawyers have been discussing the president’s pardoning powers among themselves.

One adviser said the president has simply expressed a curiosity in understanding the reach of his pardoning authority, as well as the limits of Mueller’s investigation. “This is not in the context of, ‘I can’t wait to pardon myself,’ ” a close adviser said.

Along with a number of other commentators, I have long complained about the failure of modern President's to make robust use of their clemency powers, particularly early in their terms. I have not had exactly these kinds of pardons in mind, but I am still inclined to be grateful whenever a president is giving any attention to his historic clemency powers.

July 21, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (32)

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Virginia Gov decides claim of delusional disorder does not justify halting scheduled execution of double murderer

As noted in this prior post, tonight's planned execution in Virginia of William Morva has brought renewed attention to the intersection of mental illness and capital punishment. That attention likely played a role in this decision by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to release this statement today explaining his decision not to prevent Morva's execution. Here is how the statement starts and ends:

Over the past several weeks, my staff and I have carefully considered the petition for clemency submitted by William Morva, who was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for the murder of Montgomery County Deputy Sheriff Corporal Eric Sutphin and hospital security guard Derrick McFarland.  We have also reviewed extensive communications from family members of the victims, law enforcement officials, community leaders, and concerned observers from all over the world.

Consistent with the three previous petitions for commutation of a capital sentence that I have reviewed, I have evaluated Mr. Morva’s submission for evidence that he has been subjected to a miscarriage of justice at any phase of his trial that could have impacted the verdict or his sentence.  After extensive review and deliberation, I do not find sufficient cause in Mr. Morva’s petition or case records to justify overturning the will of the jury that convicted and sentenced him.

There is no question that, in a carefully orchestrated effort to escape custody while awaiting trial for burglary, robbery and firearms charges, Mr. Morva brutally attacked a deputy sheriff, stole his firearm and used it to murder Mr. McFarland, who was unarmed and had his hands raised as he was shot in the face from a distance of two feet.  The next day, Mr. Morva murdered Corporal Sutphin by shooting him in the back of the head.

Mr. Morva’s petition for clemency states that he suffers from a delusional disorder that rendered him unable to understand the consequences of his actions.

That diagnosis is inconsistent with the findings of the three licensed mental health professionals appointed by the trial court, including an expert psychiatrist who is Board-Certified in both Psychiatry and Forensic Psychiatry.  Two of these three experts were called by Mr. Morva’s own legal team.  These experts thoroughly evaluated Mr. Morva and testified to the jury that, while he may have personality disorders, he did not suffer from any condition that would have prevented him from committing these acts consciously and fully understanding their consequences....

I have determined that Mr. Morva was given a fair trial and that the jury heard substantial evidence about his mental health as they prepared to sentence him in accordance with the law of our Commonwealth.  In short, the record before me does not contain sufficient evidence to warrant the extraordinary step of overturning the decision of a lawfully empaneled jury following a properly conducted trial.

I personally oppose the death penalty; however, I took an oath to uphold the laws of this Commonwealth regardless of my personal views of those laws, as long as they are being fairly and justly applied. Thus, after extensive review and deliberation consistent with the process I have applied to previous requests for commutation, I have declined Mr. Morva’s petition. I have and will continue to pray for the families of the victims of these terrible crimes and for all of the people whose lives have been impacted.

UPDATE: This Reuters article suggests that Morva's execution was completed without difficulty Thursday night.

July 6, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

A timely call for "Reorganizing the Federal Clemency Process"

Paul Larkin, who has written a number of recent notable article on clemency noted here and here, now has this new "Legal Memorandum" at The Heritage Foundation titled ""Reorganizing the Federal Clemency Process."  Here its abstract and "Key Points":

The President relies on the Department of Justice to filter out ineligible applicants and recommend from the remainder which ones should receive clemency, but the department suffers from an actual or apparent conflict of interest.  One proposed remedy would be for Congress to create an independent advisory board like the U.S. Sentencing Commission to review every clemency application and offer the President its recommendations.  A better alternative would be for the President to move the Office of the Pardon Attorney into the Executive Office of the President and use the Vice President as his principal clemency adviser.  The Vice President can offer the President several benefits in the clemency decision- making process that no one else in the government possesses.

Key Points:

Prior related posts:

June 6, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Does acceptance of a commutation moot a prisoner's collateral legal challenge to a prison sentence he is still serving?

The complicated question in the title of this post is the issue addressed in a complicated set of opinions issued by various members of the en banc Fourth Circuit as the full court dismissed as moot the long-running case of Raymond Surratt in US v. Surratt, No. 14-6851 (4th Cir. April 21, 2017) (available here).  As the latest opinion in Surratt reveals, I was involved in this case as an amicus, but I had largely forgotten that fact given that the Surratt panel opinion, as noted here, was decided nearly two years ago and oral argument before the en banc Fourth Circuit took place more than a year ago. 

I surmise that the en banc Fourth Circuit was deeply divided on the procedural and substantive issues that the complicated Surratt case presented and that a mootness ruling served as a convenient way to dispose of a hard case thanks to the deus ex machina of Prez Obama's grant of clemency to Raymond Surratt.  I am surely biased in this view because I served as an amicus in the case, but also because I think these passages from Judge Wynn's dissent make a pretty solid case against mootness:

Here, there is no dispute that if we vacate Petitioner’s commuted sentence and remand for resentencing, Petitioner will likely face a sentence shorter than that imposed by the commutation. In particular, whereas the President commuted Petitioner’s life sentence to 200 months’ imprisonment, Petitioner’s applicable Guidelines range is 120 to 137 months, less than his time-served.  Accordingly, Petitioner has a continuing “concrete interest” — namely, his liberty — in having us vacate his current sentence and remand for resentencing under the applicable Guidelines.  We and other courts have found arguably substantially less significant interests adequate to preclude mootness. See, e.g., Townes v. Jarvis, 577 F.3d 543, 547 (4th Cir. 2009) (holding that the petitioner’s release from prison did not moot his collateral challenge to his sentence because a favorable appellate decision could “affect the length of his parole”); Richards v. United States, 212 F.2d 453, 454 (D.C. Cir. 1954) (holding that defendant’s collateral challenge to the lower end of his sentencing range was not moot, even though defendant had already served more than that lower end, because “there is some possibility” that having a longer minimum sentence “may in some indirect way affect him adversely in the future”).

I am not alone in my view that an injustice continues by declaring this matter now moot. Indeed, the Seventh Circuit, the only circuit that appears to have squarely addressed the issue, refused to find mootness in analogous circumstances, holding that a petitioner may collaterally challenge his original sentence, notwithstanding that the challenged sentence was commuted during the course of litigating that collateral challenge, when the commuted sentence exceeds the mandatory minimum the petitioner would face if he prevailed on his collateral challenge.  See Simpson v. Battaglia, 458 F.3d 585, 595 (7th Cir. 2006); Madej v. Briley, 371 F.3d 898, 899 (7th Cir. 2004).  In Simpson, for example, after the petitioner filed a habeas petition challenging his death sentence, the Governor of Illinois commuted the petitioner’s sentence from death to life imprisonment without parole. 458 F.3d at 595.  Like the government does here, the State argued that the commutation rendered the petitioner’s collateral challenge to his sentence nonjusticiable, and therefore moot, because of the petitioner’s decreased sentence and “the executive nature of his confinement.” Id.  The Seventh Circuit rejected both arguments, explaining that because the petitioner would face a mandatory minimum of 20 years’ imprisonment if he prevailed on his collateral attack, as opposed to the life sentence imposed by the Governor, “it [wa]s possible for [the petitioner] to obtain relief, and his sentencing claims [we]re not moot.” Id. Put differently, “[a] full remedy for the constitutional shortcoming at the original sentencing hearing entails allowing [the petitioner] to seek that lower sentence now.” Id. (second alteration in original) (quoting Madej, 371 F.3d at 899).

I presume Raymond Surratt could opt to seek Supreme Court review of the Fourth Circuit's decision that his collateral challenge to his old/new sentence is moot. But, ironically, the Fourth Circuit's mootness claim may arguably get stronger in the very process of cert review, at least functionally if not legally, because Surratt likely will have finished serving his 200 months in federal prison by the time the Supreme Court could get around to taking up and hearing Surratt's challenge to the Fourth Circuit's mootness conclusion.

April 27, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Virginia Gov commutes death sentence of defendant who has claimed innocence in murder-for-hire crime

As reported in this new Washington Post piece, "Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has commuted the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz, a 38-year-old man who was set to be executed Tuesday in the murder-for-hire of his former girlfriend." Here is more:

Teleguz has maintained his innocence in the 2001 slaying of 20-year-old Stephanie Yvonne Sipe in Harrisonburg.  His lawyers have argued that two key witnesses have recanted their testimony, calling his guilt into question.  Multiple courts have deemed those recantations unreliable, and the man who killed Sipe has never wavered in saying that Teleguz paid him to commit the murder.

McAuliffe said Thursday that while he believes Teleguz is guilty, the sentencing phase of his trial was “terribly flawed and unfair.”  Teleguz will now serve life in prison without a chance of parole.

In their clemency petition, attorneys for Teleguz stressed that jurors were falsely told that Teleguz also was involved in a Pennsylvania murder — but that purported killing never occurred. Prosecutors pointed to testimony of that supposed crime as evidence that Teleguz “solves problems” with murder.  “The jury acted on false information,” McAuliffe said.

In making his decision, McAuliffe said he reviewed over 6,000 pages of documents, including letters from Sipe’s family.  He called her relatives before his news conference Thursday afternoon.  “My heart aches for the family of Stephanie Sipe,” he said, “but the Virginia Constitution and our sacred values of due process under law require me to act.”

McAuliffe personally opposes the death penalty, citing his Catholic faith. But this marks the first time he has commuted a death sentence.  As governor, he has presided over three executions, and at the behest of correctional officials he has pushed for more secrecy in the lethal injection process....

Teleguz’s plea for a commutation attracted high-profile support, including from billionaire Richard Branson and former Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr.

Investigators and Sipe’s family, however, are confident of Teleguz’s guilt.  “There's no doubt in my mind that he hired these people to kill my sister,” Sipe's sister, Jennifer Tilley, told the Harrisonburg television station WHSV last week.  “And it blows my mind, it really does, that he is still trying to fight and plead for his life.”...

The last time a Virginia governor commuted a death sentence was in 2008, when then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) stopped the execution of triple murderer Percy L. Walton. Kaine commuted Walton’s sentence to life in prison without parole, saying that Walton was mentally incompetent and that putting him to death would be unconstitutional.

Prior related post:

April 20, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, April 13, 2017

"Three Reasons Why Virginia May Execute an Innocent Man"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary authored by LawProf Cara Drinan.  Here are excerpts:

In 2006, a jury convicted Ivan Teleguz of hiring someone to kill Stephanie Sipe, his ex-girlfriend and the mother of his child. Now, more than a decade later, Virginia is scheduled to execute Teleguz on April 25, 2017, and there is substantial evidence suggesting that Teleguz is innocent.

How is that possible in the United States – the land of the free, where a poor person is entitled to legal counsel and a criminal defendant has numerous chances to be heard in court? Actually, it happens with some ease, and in part, it happens because of conscious choices we have made about our legal system. There are at least three reasons for this counter-intuitive reality.

1. Prosecutors, Not Judges or Juries, Resolve Most Criminal Cases in America ...

Teleguz’s case demonstrates this phenomenon well. There was no physical evidence connecting him to the murder of Ms. Sipe; the prosecution’s case was based on the testimony of three witnesses. Since his trial, two of those witnesses have recanted their testimony and have admitted that they lied when they implicated Teleguz in exchange for favorable treatment from the government. The Commonwealth repeatedly told the third witness, Ms. Sipe’s actual killer, that he would face the death penalty unless he “cooperated” with them by agreeing to testify against Teleguz in Ms. Sipe’s murder and sticking to that story. Not surprisingly, he did just that and he is serving out a life sentence while Teleguz faces imminent death.

2. The Myth of the Right to Counsel ...

Teleguz suffered at the hands of a broken system. Counsel in death penalty cases are held to a heightened standard of performance, and as part of that standard, they are expected to conduct extensive, careful investigation to prepare for the sentencing phase of the trial. Teleguz’s trial counsel was far from diligent, and as a result, the jury heard evidence that Teleguz was involved in another arranged murder. This evidence persuaded the jury to vote for the death penalty. Here’s the wrinkle: not only was Teleguz not involved in such a crime, the crime never happened. Years after his trial, that fact came to light, and the government has now acknowledged that the alleged prior murder did not happen. But the jury verdict stands.

3. Not So Appealing Appeals Process ...

Surely, the multi-layered appellate process would ferret out an error of this magnitude and provide a remedy? Not necessarily. In 1996, Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) and in the process “gutted the federal writ of habeas corpus, which a federal court can use to order the release of someone wrongly imprisoned.” Today, the American appellate process is an intricate web of procedural rules, and, in fact, "we have purposefully designed our system of appellate review to examine almost everything but factual guilt or innocence."

That might be defensible if we could be confident in the accuracy of our criminal justice system, but we can’t be. Since 1989, there have been more than 2,000 exonerations in the United States.  In 2015 alone, 58 people were exonerated of homicide convictions. Like many of those individuals, Teleguz has consistently maintained his innocence. Today there is new evidence to support that claim that no court has fully examined.

In the next few days, Governor Terry McAuliffe can’t do much about prosecutorial overreach, problems with indigent defense, and the complex appellate process.  But he can recognize that, because of these systemic failures, there is substantial doubt about Teleguz’s guilt. Governor McAuliffe should grant clemency and stop Teleguz’s execution.

This recent AP article, headlined "Conservatives urge Virginia governor to spare inmate's life," highlights that it is not only a law professor urging Gov McAuliffe to act in this capital case.

UPDATE: A commentor has usefully noted that the Fourth Circuit opinion in this case, which is available here, provides a different perspective on this case and Teleguz's claims of innocence.

April 13, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (21)

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Arkansas Parole Board recommends clemency for one of eight condemned scheduled for execution later this month

As reported in this AP piece, the "Arkansas Parole Board on Wednesday recommended that Gov. Asa Hutchinson alter the state's unprecedented execution schedule and grant mercy to a death row inmate who directed the torture and murder of a teenager more than two decades ago." Here is more:

Jason McGehee, 40, is one of eight inmates scheduled to die in four double executions this month. Hutchinson, who is not bound by the board's finding that McGehee should have his sentence cut to life without parole, can intervene at any time before the execution begins on April 27. The Republican governor not said when he will make a decision.

Until Wednesday, the state Parole Board had rejected every death row clemency request presented to it since 1990.

With a key lethal injection drug expiring at the end of the month, the Arkansas Department of Correction hopes to execute eight men in a 10-day period beginning April 17. Only Texas has executed that many inmates in a month, doing it twice in 1997. Seven executions in a month would still be a record for Arkansas.

Prosecutors say McGehee, who had just turned 20, directed the fatal assault of Johnny Melbourne Jr., a 15-year-old who had told police about a northern Arkansas theft ring. In voting 6-1 in favor of McGehee's clemency request, the Parole Board considered letters and testimony from the judge from McGehee's trial, a former Correction Department chief, members of McGehee's family and the victim's father.

"The death of John Melbourne, Jr. was the tragic result of a group-dynamic gone wrong," retired Circuit Judge Robert McCorkindale wrote, according to documents released by the state Parole Board. McGehee was one of several people who participated in the attack, but was the only defendant sentenced to death, and the retired judge called it "an excessive punishment."

Former Department of Correction Director Ray Hobbs told the panel at a 40-minute hearing Friday that McGehee had become a model prisoner. "He still has value that can be given to others if his life is spared," Hobbs said.

Linda Christensen, the inmate's aunt, said in an affidavit filed with the board that McGehee suffered psychological abuse as a teenager, such as when his stepfather killed the boy's dog after the dog fought with another dog for food. The stepfather "got up and kicked Dusty in the side with his cowboy boots as hard as he could," Christensen wrote. "He lay and suffered and the kids had to watch him die slowly. ... Jason was never the same after that."

Melbourne's father had asked the board to reject McGehee's clemency request. "John didn't have this. Even though he was begging for his life and was hurting. He didn't have this and he begged for his life too. He didn't have y'all," the elder Melbourne said.

Board Chairman John Felts voted against clemency. He said McGehee's death sentence wasn't excessive considering the inmate had orchestrated the Aug. 19, 1996, attack. The boy was beaten and tortured at a house in Harrison, then bound and driven to an abandoned farmhouse outside Omaha, a town in northern Arkansas. He was later strangled while his hands were tied with an electrical cord.

April 6, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Front-line advocate's response to interview with former White House Counsel Neil Eggleston about Prez Obama clemency efforts

Regular readers know I am always eager to provide a forum for responses and respectful criticisms of sentencing-related activities and comments by public officials.  In that vein, I am pleased to provide here the sharp commentary sent my way by Beth Curtis, a prisoner advocate who runs the website Life for Pot.  Beth sent an extended commentary my way under the heading "Responding to: The Man Who Ran Obama’s Clemency Machine"; she was inspired to write by the recent Marshall Project interview with former White House Counsel Neil Eggleston about Prez Obama's clemency efforts (noted here).   

Beth's full commentary is available for download below, and here is a snippet to highlight why the full piece is worthy of time and attention:

For the first five years of Obama’s presidency the federal prison population grew by 13,000 incarcerated people. In 2013, the population was 214,149, the highest incarceration rate in history.

Criminal justice organizations, prisoner advocacy groups, criminal defense attorneys, law school clinics, prisoner’s families and various other lobbying groups started the drum beat for sentencing reform and an initiative of Presidential Clemency. Finally in 2013 Eric Holder announced that there would be a clemency initiative that could mean 10,000 or more acts of mercy for incarcerated people who would not be a threat if they were released.

Those of us with incarcerated loved ones who had sentences that would assure that they would die behind bars now had a reason for hope. We felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to the President and all who were involved in the decision and the process that would lead to our loved ones freedom. We could hope to have our family member in our daily lives again. The hope was an ache, but we knew this President had compassion. It was not to be.

The lack of commitment became apparent almost immediately. I have the web site Life for Pot and the nonviolent marijuana offenders that I advocate for waited patiently for their evaluation by cp-14. Surprisingly some were rejected, and others accepted to the project and were told they would be assigned an attorney. Those fortunate inmates who were assigned an attorney would sometimes just receive a notification that they were represented and hear nothing more. We urged them to submit their own and wait.

This is not just a passing interest for me. I have a 69 year old brother, John Knock, who has two life sentences for a nonviolent marijuana conspiracy. He has been incarcerated for 20 years and never had an infraction. His prison resume is impeccable. He is a first time offender. On January 18, his clemency petition was denied by President Obama.

These are the numbers that tell you about the mercy and compassion of the Clemency Initiative. The promise was 10,000 or more. 1,715 Commutations granted – we could only find 39 for nonviolent marijuana only offenders. The rest were denied or left pending.

Over 18,000 petitions for commutation were denied. Over 4,000 petitions for commutation we closed without action. Over 8,000 petitions for commutation were left pending in the Pardon Attorney’s office for the next administration.

I must reject Mr. Eggleston’s assertion that he had better information and insight than the attorneys, advocates, or families about who was a good candidate for release. He asserts that he and President Obama looked over all the applicants and rejected all but 1,715.

Apparently Mr. Eggleston and President Obama based their denials on secret information. That implies that all the nonviolent marijuana offenders that I know who were denied should remain in prison till they die because Mr. Eggleston and President Obama have special information unknown to anyone else? What are the secrets that gave them confidence to make this Sophie’s Choice? They missed the point of Clemency. It is not a legal process but a Constitutional Power given to the President to be compassionate and merciful. In this endeavor they failed miserably.

These assertions made by Mr. Eggleston have tainted the character and behavior of all they left behind. I can only believe this was done in order to in order to burnish the administrations legacy of compassion at the expense of those they left behind without hope.

There is one secret that most of us know that the White House and the Pardon Attorney did not address. That secret is that most nonviolent offenders who receive sentences of life without parole were charged with conspiracy and went to trial. A conspiracy charge does not require definitive evidence, but only the testimony of those testifying for a plea or for part of the forfeiture. If you exercise your sixth amendment right to trial you receive the trial penalty. This charge allows the Prosecutor to tell the story.

In the spring of 2016 at a White House Briefing, it was obvious to many of us that the promise of clemency was waning and The Administration was pivoting to reentry as the major emphasis for time and money.

The White House would not pay attention to any effort to expedite the clemency project by granting clemency to categories of inmates. Many individuals and groups implored them to take this approach so that they would not fail the thousands who placed their trust in their concept of mercy. The White House and Justice Department did not seem to even understand the concept as it had been used in the past. Heals were dug in, and fates were sealed.


UPDATE:  For those unable to get download to work (which may be my fault, as I am working from the road), here is a link to Beth's site with her full commentary.

Prior related post:

February 19, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Interesting Q&A about Prez Obama's clemency efforts with former White House counsel Neil Eggleston

DownloadThe Marshall Project has this notable new piece that reviews Prez Obama's clemency work via an interview with former White House counsel Neil Eggleston. The piece is headlined "The Man Who Ran Obama's Clemency Machine: 'He felt strongly that this was a gift, and the gift had to be earned.'" Here are excerpts:

From one angle, former President Barack Obama was the most merciful president in U.S. history, granting commutations to more than 1,700 federal prisoners.... But his final tally was also far below earlier expectations, given that former Attorney General Eric Holder once speculated that the final number of clemency grants could reach 10,000 — one of every 19 federal prisoners. Obama also received more petitions for clemency than any recent president.

Blame has been passed around, much of it centering on the bureaucracy that emerged to handle the deluge of potential cases, as well as the role federal prosecutors played in the process. In the end, attorneys who felt they had submitted strong cases to the president often wondered why they lost. “In granting so many fewer petitions than originally projected, the administration may have done more to exacerbate the arbitrariness of the sentencing regime writ large than to remedy it,” one of those attorneys, Sean Nuttall, wrote recently at The Marshall Project.

One key figure in the process was Neil Eggleston, who served as White House counsel from April 2014 through the end of Obama’s term. We asked him to discuss the process from the inside....

How closely did President Obama look at each of the applications for clemency he received? And what did you learn about him based on how he handled them?

I would give him memos on the cases, and he would spend a long time on each one. For a significant number, he was fine with my recommendation. For others, he would say: “Why are you recommending this person to me? Look at his conduct in prison, look at his prior convictions. I’m uncomfortable that this guy is going to take advantage of a second chance.”

Or the alternative: There were times when the deputy attorney general may have recommended in favor of a commutation, and I recommended against it, and [Obama] would call me in and ask: “Why don’t you agree with this one?” Or he’d say: “Look there’s this prior conviction, I’m troubled by it, can you get me more information?”

He was really into the details. There were two parts to the way he thought. The first was he just thought a lot of these sentences from the 90’s and 2000’s were excessive. But he also felt very strongly about the idea of rehabilitation and second chances. It wasn’t enough that the person had just gotten too lengthy a sentence. He also wanted make sure these were people who would benefit from a second chance. So if someone didn’t do any programming, got into fights, had a lot of infractions, etc., I think the president was concerned they would be unlikely to do anything but go back to their life of crime when they got out. He felt strongly that this was a gift, and the gift had to be earned.

One common criticism of the process was that there were arbitrary outcomes, that two people with similar cases could be granted and denied clemency.

I think the thing the outside commentators didn’t really understand was that I had more information about these people than others did, including, frankly, their lawyers. I had records of how they performed in prison, and information about their prior crimes. And when people say there was arbitrariness it’s because they didn’t know factors that I knew. All 1,700 went through me and the small group of lawyers underneath me. And ultimately I didn’t want people in jail thinking to themselves, “How can this be?” So is there some arbitrariness? Humans making decisions will not always be perfect. But I reject the notion that there was arbitrariness....

Were you afraid that a single heinous crime by one of these released men or women would derail the whole program?

We never mentioned the words “Willie Horton.” But the answer is yes — very much so. The president wanted to make sure these were people who would take advantage of their second chances, but part of that was making sure they wouldn’t go back to jail. In the letter the president sent to released prisoners, he wrote to them that their choices “will also influence...the possibility that others in your circumstances get their own second chance in the future.” He was saying: “If you mess up, I may not be able to give clemency to other people.” It’s pretty explicit....

One criticism was that it was strange to have prosecutors — from the same department who got these sentences in the first place — weigh in on clemency decisions. Did you think about this?

I think that criticism was completely misguided and based on some sort of theoretical, potential problem. The fact is that Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, a 27-year Department of Justice prosecutor out of Atlanta, was a very strong supporter of this initiative. Loretta Lynch, too. The people who criticized their involvement did so on a theoretical conflict — not an actual conflict. It’s just not true.

That suggests the Department of Justice under incoming Attorney General Jeff Sessions could rapidly go in another direction and oppose the use of clemency.

I know Sessions publicly opposed our initiative. I hope that I’m wrong, but I worry that given his comments, this will not be pursued by the new administration. It’s going to require them to decide this is something they want to continue. I hope they do.

February 15, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Looking at Ohio Gov Kasich's clemency record and those of his predecessors

This local article, headlined "Kasich stays conservative with pardons," discusses how my Governor has recently used his clemency powers. Here are the details:

Gov. John Kasich used his executive clemency power a little more in 2016 than in previous years, but remains the most conservative governor in 30 years in granting commutations, pardons and reprieves for criminal sentences.

Kasich, a Republican now in his seventh year as governor, approved 18 of 526 requests for clemency last year, slightly more than 3 percent. He approved just two of 244 requests in 2014. The 18 cases approved last year included one in which the Florida man seeking clemency for a 41-year-old Ohio crime died after filing the application; Kasich approved the pardon posthumously.

Statistics obtained by The Dispatch from a public-records request made annually to the governor's office do not include death-penalty cases, such as those granted on Friday when Kasich granted reprieves to move back eight scheduled executions in response to a court order.

In six years in office, Kasich approved 86 of 2,291 requests to reach his desk, about one in 26.

Ohio governors have nearly unlimited clemency power in criminal cases after the Ohio Adult Parole Authority has made a recommendation in a case. The governor does not have to agree with the parole board's decision, but he did in all 13 cases he approved last year.

The clemencies approved by Kasich were all for old, mostly non-violent crimes. All were pardons, which is "an act of grace or forgiveness that relieves the person pardoned from some or all of the ramifications of lawful punishment," according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction....

Kasich agreed with the parole board in all but eight of 526 cases last year. In the eight cases, he denied clemency where the parole board recommended it.

In the three decades that Ohio has tracked gubernatorial clemency, governors have used the power in different ways, sometimes reflecting personal, political or ideological persuasions.  Ted Strickland, a Democrat who preceded Kasich as governor, approved 20 percent of 1,615 clemency requests that he handled between 2007 and 2011.  Most cases involved low-level, nonviolent offenses, but he commuted five death-penalty sentences to life in prison without parole....

Republicans George V. Voinovich, governor from 1991 to '98, and Bob Taft (1999-2007) each approved less than 10 percent of the clemency requests received.  James A. Rhodes, a Republican, approved 17.5 percent of clemencies in 1982, his last year in office.

Democrat Richard F. Celeste, governor from 1983 to 1991, touched off a legal battle in the final days of his second term when he commuted the death sentences of eight men and granted clemency to 25 female prisoners who were victims of battered-woman syndrome.  As a result of Celeste's actions, the General Assembly changed the law to require governors to have a recommendation from the parole board before making a clemency decision.

February 12, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Ohio Gov forced to delay scheduled executions yet again due to lethal injection ltigation

As this local article reports, "Gov. John Kasich has delayed eight scheduled executions because of continuing litigation over lethal injection drugs." Here are the details:

The governor used his executive clemency authority to reschedule the executions, beginning with Ronald Phillips who was to be put to death on Wednesday for the 1993 rape and murder of three-year-old Sheila Marie Evans. Phillips will now be executed on May 10, under the revised schedule.

The delays follow the Jan. 26 decision by U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Craig Merz barred the state's use of a three-drug protocol, declaring it unconstitutional, and blocked the pending execution of Phillips and two other inmates. The state has appealed the ruling to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"While Ohio is confident its appeal will ultimately be successful ... the appellate court's scheduling will not allow the matter to be resolved in time to allow the state to move forward with its current execution dates," Kasich's office said in a statement this morning. "Accordingly, these delays are necessary to allow the judicial process to come to a full resolution, and ensure that the state can move forward with the executions."

Merz's lengthy order cited problems with executions in other states with the use of midazolam, one of the three drugs in Ohio's protocol, along with rocuronium bromide and potassium chloride.

Ohio hasn't had an execution since Jan. 16, 2014, when Dennis McGuire choked, gasped and struggled against his restraints for much of the 26 minutes it took for him to die. Midazolam was one of the drugs used to execute McGuire.

The revised schedule after Phillips [includes] Gary Otte, moved to June 13 from March 15 [and] Raymond Tibbetts, moved to July 26 from April 12.

Ever since Ohio announced it had acquired execution drugs and had a new execution protocol in early Fall 2016, I have been expecting and sort-of predicting that Ohio would finally find a way to get its machinery of death back up and running again in 2017. Given some prior Sixth Circuit and Supreme Court rulings, I continue to think Ohio will be able to complete some executions this year. But, of course, lethal injection litigation can be like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates: you never quite know what you are gonna get.

February 11, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Horrific aftermath for one Obama commutation recipient

This local article from Michigan, headlined "Ex-gang member 'executed' after Obama commutes sentence," reports on how one recipient of Obama's clemency push quickly became of victim of violent crime.  Here are the details:

Police say two masked gunmen with assault-style rifles entered a federal halfway house Monday night with a specific goal: the "execution" of a man recently released from prison at the behest of former President Barack Obama.

Demarlon C. Thomas, a former member of Saginaw's Sunny Side Gang who had his 19-year prison sentence commuted by Obama in November, was slain by one of the gunmen around 9:40 p.m. Monday, Jan. 23, at Bannum Place, the federal halfway house located at 2200 Norman St., Michigan State Police Lt. David Kaiser said.

Thomas, 31, was shot in the head and numerous other times by one of the gunmen as his partner corralled at gunpoint some of the other 23 people in the house, Kaiser said.  "One person watched over a group of them while another subject located the victim and executed him," Kaiser said. "They were looking for this person."

No one else was injured, and it's unknown at this time what security measures the halfway house had in place, Kaiser said. No suspects are in custody.

Thomas was among 79 people across the country who had their sentences commuted by Obama on Nov. 22, 2016. Obama commuted Thomas' sentence to expire on March 22, 2017, or about eight years before his initial release date....

Thomas was arrested in one of the biggest drug busts in the history of Saginaw. In 2008, he was sentenced to 19 years in prison for the distribution of five grams or more of cocaine as part of the three-year federal investigation called "Operation Sunset." In all, "Operation Sunset" saw 29 convictions in federal court and 10 in state court and effectively brought about the end of the Sunny Side Gang, which operated on Saginaw's South Side.

January 25, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Prez Obama wraps up his clemency work with 330 more commutations on his final full day in office

As reported here via USA Today, "President Obama commuted the sentences of 330 more federal inmates Thursday, capping an unprecedented clemency effort that has now released 1,715 prisoners — more than any other president in history."  Here is more:

The clemency grants announced on Obama's last full day in office set a one-day record. "Proud to make this one of my final actions as President.  America is a nation of second chances, and 1,715 people deserved that shot," Obama tweeted Thursday.

The clemency initiative, which began in 2014, was targeted at drug dealers who received mandatory-minimum sentences during the War on Drugs from the 1980s to the 2000s. But the effort ultimately fell far short of the 10,000 clemency grants former attorney general Eric Holder predicted when the initiative began. And while Obama set a record for granting commutations, he also set a record for denials.  As of the end of 2016, he had denied 14,485 petitions and closed another 4,242 without action — an overall grant rate of 5.9%, a couple of percentage points higher than many of his predecessors.

"The president set out to reinvigorate clemency, and he has done just that," White House counsel Neil Eggleston said in a statement.

It's unclear how big of a backlog in clemency cases President-elect Donald Trump will inherit.  But Justice Department officials had promised to give an up-or-down determination on every clemency initiative case it received by August.  “I’m proud to say we kept that promise," Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates said in a statement. "This undertaking was as enormous as it was unprecedented, and I am incredibly grateful to the teams of people who devoted their time and energy to the project since its inception."

Obama's final list of clemency grants included no more full pardons, meaning his final pardon tally will stand at 212 — fewer than any modern president except Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. (It was the younger Bush who gave Obama this advice in the limo ride to the Capitol on his Inauguration Day eight years ago. "Announce a pardon policy early on, and stick to it.")

The grants on Thursday also did not include any of the more high-profile political cases, like former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, and former congressman Chaka Fattah, all serving time on corruption charges.

With Thursday's action, the Clemency Project 2014 also closes its doors.  The coalition of defense attorneys who had agreed to help inmates with their cases says it completed work on all the applications it received. "Of course we'd be delighted to continue, but we have to wait to see whether the next president says whether he will or will not pursue this," he said.

This NBC News coverage of the final grants and the recent history of Obama's clemency initiative closes with a useful account of its ups and downs:

Obama's clemency grants came in large batches, hundreds at a time, accompanied by statements that framed his effort as a bid to become the most merciful president of all time. But his denials were even more voluminous. The effect on applicants and their lawyers was like an emotional roller coaster.

On Wednesday, sandwiched between Obama's two ballyhooed clemency announcements, the Justice Department quietly released the names of more than 2,000 applicants who'd been denied.

James Felman, a Florida defense lawyer who represents dozens of inmates who applied for clemency, celebrated Tuesday when he learned that four had received commutations. On Wednesday, he learned that a dozen others had been denied, and he mourned. On Thursday, Felman was elated again, this time for four more clients who were on Obama's list. A dozen of Felman's clients still have heard nothing. Three are serving life sentences.

And then there's the matter of reform. Advocates point out that clemency does nothing to change policies that led to mass incarceration. Efforts to ease those laws beyond the 2010 changes have stalled in Congress.

Felman, who won commutation for 44 total clients, called Obama's initiative "the single most gratifying professional experience I've ever undertaken." He added: "I have so much gratitude for the president for having the courage and fortitude for doing this. But we know this is not a substitute for reforming the laws that got us here, and we still haven't accomplished that."

January 19, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

Noting that two death row inmates were among the latest batch of commutations by Prez Obama

I am intrigued and a bit surprised that there has not been more media attention surrounding the fact that two of the persons granted clemency by Prez Obama earlier this week were murderers on federal death row.   This posting at the Death Penalty Information Center reports on the basics, with also interesting links to some clemency materials:

On January 17, 2017, President Barack Obama commuted the death sentences of Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz, a federal death row prisoner, and Dwight Loving, a military death row prisoner. The two men were among 209 commutations and 64 pardons announced by the White House on the 17th.

Ortiz's lawyers sought clemency from the President on the grounds that Ortiz was intellectually disabled, his right to consular notification under the Vienna Convention had been violated, he did not himself commit the murder and was not in the room when it occurred, and he had been denied effective assistance of counsel at trial. Loving's attorneys argued for clemency on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel, racial and gender bias in the selection of members of his court-martial, and Supreme Court rulings that called into question the constitutionality of the process by which the military imposes the death penalty.

In Loving's clemency petition, his lawyers state, "Issues of command influence, racial discrimination, and improper panel voting procedures – which were ignored by the courts based on technical legal evidentiary rules – will forever overshadow Loving’s death sentence. Executing him [will] not promote justice or ensure good order and discipline any more than a sentence of life imprisonment."

Ortiz's lawyers said they were "incredibly grateful" to President Obama for the commutation. In a statement, Amy Gershenfeld Donnella said, "Mr. Arboleda Ortiz’s case highlights several of the glaring problems that plague the federal system no less than state systems: dreadful lawyering by defense counsel; disproportionate sentencing even among co-defendants; significant racial, economic and geographic disparities in the choice of those who will be tried capitally; and procedural constraints that make it virtually impossible to correct a conviction or sentence imposed, even in violation of the Constitution, when new evidence comes to light." His case, she said, "epitomizes the broken federal death penalty system." Although federal law and the U.S. Constitution both prohibit using the death penalty against persons who are intellectually disabled, Ortiz's trial lawyer never investigated his intellectual disability, Donnella said. As a result, the jurors made their decision on life or death "in a complete vaccuum" and "an intellectually disabled person of color with an IQ of 54 who was never able to learn to read, write, or do simple arithmetic, and could not even tie his shoes until he was ten years old" was sentenced to die.

Both Ortiz and Loving will now serve sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

This new Marshall Project piece, headlined "How Obama Disappointed on the Death Penalty: Two commutations this week was less than many had hoped for," discusses these two clemencies while also suggesting that they provide only a little succor to the capital abolitionist community.

January 19, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Some attacks and some defenses of Prez Obama's decision to commute sentence of Chelsea Manning

Because I have not spent a lot of time reviewing the many distinctive and seemingly unique facts relating to Chelsea Manning's offenses and personal history, I really do not have strong opinions about Prez Obama's notable decision to commute her sentence from 35 years down to roughly 7.  But it does seem that a lot of other folks have strong views, and here is a mini-round up of criticisms and defenses:

January 18, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Prez Obama issues clemency to 273 more individuals (209 commutation and 64 pardons) and Chelsea Manning among those getting a commuted sentence

Moments after I blogged about the New York Times criticizing Prez Obama on his pardon efforts, this news emerges from the White House:

Today, 273 individuals learned that the President has given them a second chance.  With today’s 209 grants of commutation, the President has now commuted the sentences of 1,385 individuals — the most grants of commutation issued by any President in this nation’s history.  President Obama’s 1,385 commutation grants — which includes 504 life sentences — is also more than the total number of commutations issued by the past 12 presidents combined.  And with today’s 64 pardons, the President has now granted a total of 212 pardons.

Today, 209 commutation recipients — including 109 individuals who had believed they would live out their remaining days in prison — learned that they will be rejoining their families and loved ones, and 64 pardon recipients learned that their past convictions have been forgiven.  These 273 individuals learned that our nation is a forgiving nation, where hard work and a commitment to rehabilitation can lead to a second chance, and where wrongs from the past will not deprive an individual of the opportunity to move forward.  Today, 273 individuals — like President Obama’s 1,324 clemency recipients before them — learned that our President has found them deserving of a second chance.

There is at least one high-profile recipient of a commutation today, as this FoxNews headline reveals:

"Obama commutes Chelsea Manning's sentence for leaking Army documents":

The White House said that Manning is one of 209 inmates whose sentences Obama is shortening. Obama is also pardoning 64 people, including retired Gen. James Cartwright, who was charged with making false statements during a probe into disclosure of classified information. Most of the other people receiving commutations were serving sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

Manning is more than six years into a 35-year sentence for leaking classified government and military documents to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. Her sentence is now set to expire May 17.

January 17, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (25)

NY Times editorial rightly notes Prez Obama's clemency failings, especially with respect to pardons

This New York Times editorial, headlined "Mr. Obama, Pick Up Your Pardon Pen," properly laments the fact that Prez Obama has used his clemency power much more for commutations than for pardons, and it even takes some astute shots at the Prez for how his has gone about his commutations.  Here is some of the criticism:

For more than four decades, Sala Udin lived under the shadow of a federal firearms conviction, the result of a search by the Kentucky police who found an unloaded shotgun in the trunk of his car in 1970.

Mr. Udin, who had been a Freedom Rider during the civil rights era, carried the gun for protection as he drove around the South.  After eight months in prison, he lived an exemplary life, serving on the Pittsburgh City Council and playing a role in the city’s redevelopment.  But when President Obama visited Pittsburgh in 2009, Mr. Udin wasn’t allowed to meet him: His criminal record prevented such an encounter.

Last month, Mr. Obama issued Mr. Udin a pardon — one of just 148 pardons the president has granted during his two terms in office.  It is an abysmally low number for a president who has stressed his commitment to second chances and the importance of helping convicted people re-enter society.

The White House has been trumpeting Mr. Obama’s use of his clemency power in the last two years, especially his nearly 1,200 commutations of prison sentences, more than the last several presidents combined.  Most of these inmates were serving outrageously long terms, including life without parole, for nonviolent drug crimes. Commuting those sentences is meaningful progress, even if Mr. Obama could and should have started much earlier and released thousands more deserving people.

But when it comes to the other type of executive clemency — pardons — Mr. Obama hasn’t been an improvement over his predecessors. Unlike a commutation, which shortens or ends a prison sentence, a pardon is an act of forgiveness granted to someone who has completed a sentence. Pardons remove the stigma of conviction and restore the right to hold office, to vote, to obtain certain business licenses and to own a gun — all activities that can be denied those with criminal records.

The reluctance to grant pardons makes even less sense than a reluctance to give out commutations, since the sentences have already been served and there is no public safety concern. In both cases, the trouble rests with the people acting as the gatekeepers of mercy. The clemency process is run out of the Justice Department, where career prosecutors have little interest in reversing the work of their colleagues. It’s a recipe for intransigence, dysfunction and injustice on a mass scale....

There is a better way. In both liberal and conservative states, from Delaware and Connecticut to Nebraska and Georgia, the pardon process is more predictable and transparent. Some states require independent boards to make pardon recommendations to the governor; others hold regularly scheduled public hearings. All take the executive’s job of granting mercy seriously, which makes those grants both more fair and more common.

On Mr. Obama’s first Inauguration Day, in 2009, President George W. Bush gave him a good piece of advice: Pick a pardon policy and stick with it. Perhaps President-elect Donald Trump will learn from Mr. Obama’s failure to heed that wisdom.

Though this is an effective editorial, it might also have noted that federal law lacks any mechanism for getting a criminal record sealed or expunged and thus a Presidential pardon is the only method for a former federal offenders to get his record cleaned. This reality makes pardon practice all that much more important at the federal level, though it also should at some point prompt federal lawmakers to consider creating a needed statutory mechanism for record sealing or expungement as exists in so many states.

January 17, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 16, 2017

After reviewing tens of thousands of requests, Obama Administration reportedly finds a few hundred more prisoners worthy of clemency

Anyone hoping Prez Obama would go out of office this week with a huge clemency bang will likely be disappointed to see this new Washington Post report headlined "Obama to commute hundreds of federal drug sentences in final grants of clemency."  I have been assuming Obama would make news with a few hundred more grants, but I know some advocates were hoping there would be perhaps thousands of commutations as Obama heads for the Oval Office exit.  Here instead is what we can expect after seemingly a whole lot of work by a whole lot of lawyers and DOJ officials:

Justice Department officials have completed their review of more than 16,000 clemency petitions filed by federal prisoners over the past two years and sent their last recommendations to President Obama, who is set to grant hundreds more commutations to nonviolent drug offenders during his final days in office.

“Everyone has killed themselves here to get the final recommendations to the president,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates said in an interview. “We were in overdrive. We were determined to live up to our commitment. It was 24-7 over the Christmas break.” U.S. Pardon Attorney Robert A. Zauzmer has not taken a day off since Yates brought him on in February 2016 to sift through the backlog of thousands of petitions. From her home in Atlanta, Yates said she reviewed hundreds of petitions during the holidays.

As President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office, Justice officials worry that his administration will dismantle Obama’s clemency initiative, which has resulted in the early release of 1,176 drug offenders who were sentenced under the severe mandatory minimum laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s during the nation’s “war on drugs.” More than 400 were serving life sentences. Yates said Obama will grant “a significant” number of commutations this week, but would not specify a number. Several people close to the process said it will be several hundred.

Those officials also fear that the next attorney general may undo new criminal justice policies. Then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. put in place a policy three years ago to reserve the most severe drug-offense penalties for high-level or violent drug traffickers — and no longer charge low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with crimes that impose severe mandatory minimum sentences. Justice Department data indicate that prosecutors are now focusing on more-serious drug cases, and there have been fewer charges that carry mandatory sentences.

Neither Trump nor his attorney general-nominee, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), has said what actions might be taken on drug charging policy or clemency, but during his campaign, Trump criticized Obama’s initiative to grant commutations. “Some of these people are bad dudes,” he said. “And these are people who are out, they’re walking the streets. Sleep tight, folks.”...

At several points during the past two years, it appeared that Obama’s clemency initiative might have been derailed, partly by a lack of resources but also by a cumbersome review process. After Holder and then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole began the effort in the spring of 2014, thousands of inmates applied. To help them with their petitions, outside lawyers formed an organization called Clemency Project 2014, which includes Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

About 4,000 volunteer lawyers signed up to help in what has become one of the largest pro bono efforts in the history of the legal profession in the United States. Once the lawyers submitted the petitions, the U.S. pardon attorney made recommendations to the deputy attorney general, who reviewed the cases and sent them to the White House counsel, who also reviewed them before choosing which ones went to Obama.

When Yates arrived at Justice in the spring of 2015, the clemency program was overwhelmed and bogged down. Advocates criticized the inefficient process and urged the Obama administration to pick up the pace for the inmates waiting for relief from unfair sentences. “There wasn’t an apparatus set up,” Yates said. “When I arrived, they were doing the best they could . . . but we didn’t really have a playbook.”

Early last year, more than 9,000 clemency petitions were pending, and the pardon attorney at the time was so frustrated that she quit.  Yates brought on Zauzmer, a longtime federal prosecutor, who prioritized applications so that Justice lawyers could focus on inmates who met the criteria: Inmates had to have served at least 10 years; had no significant criminal history; no connection to gangs, cartels or organized crime; and probably would have received a “substantially lower sentence” if convicted today.

“These are big decisions that you’re making,” Yates said, alluding to the public-safety risks and the need to provide a “sophisticated analysis” to the president. “If it’s to let someone out of prison early, earlier than what their original sentence was, you’ve got to be careful about those decisions,” she said. “There’s lots of people whose current offense or conviction is a nonviolent drug offense . . . but you have to look at their past as well and at their criminal history.  You have to look at their conduct [in prison].”

Not all inmates who have been granted clemency will be released immediately or even in a number of months. Last summer, the Obama administration began granting clemency to some inmates by reducing their sentences; in some cases, they will remain in prison for years.  At the end of August, Yates announced that she would review and give Obama a recommendation on every petition from a drug offender that was still in the department’s possession at that time — about 6,195 petitions.  She did that, and included several hundred petitions received through Sept. 15, after her cutoff date.  She also reviewed petitions that came in as late as Nov. 30 from drug offenders serving life sentences. By last Friday, the final number of petitions reviewed was 16,776. “Sally deserves a lot of credit,” Holder said in an interview. “She set this goal of looking at every drug-clemency petition, and they accomplished that.”

I want to give DAG Yates and Pardon Attorney Zauzmer lots and lots of credit for all their efforts, and I will also give some credit to Prez Obama for ultimately making clemency an 11th hour priority.  But given that Prez Obama set of modern record for fewest clemencies during his first term in office, and especially because he leaves in place the same troublesome clemency process that has contributed to problems in the past, I will still look at Obama's tenure largely as an opportunity missed.  

January 16, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Questioning a new term of supervised release after Prez Obama commutes a life sentence

This new article at The Fix highlights an interesting legal issue that has arisen in the wake of Prez Obama's decision to commute a drug offenders life sentence.  Here are the particulars (with a few edits for keeping the legal terminology accurate):

When Jimmy Walden was granted clemency by President Obama, it was the happiest day of his life.  Walden was locked up on May 19, 2008 and given a life sentence under federal sentencing guidelines for a very minor drug offense in Tennessee.  On August 4, 2016, Walden received an Executive Grant of Clemency commuting his total trial sentence of imprisonment to expire on August 3, 2018.  He was ecstatic, but then he got a letter from the court informing him that they wanted to impose a 10-year term of supervised release. The court hadn’t deemed it necessary at the time due to Walden’s life sentence, but since he was getting out, his judge now wanted to impose [supervised release], which in effect is another sentence.

“I was arrested in September 2007.  My case was possession with attempt to distribute crack cocaine and marijuana,” Walden tells The Fix from Federal Correctional Institution, Jesup in Georgia. “They arrested me and wanted me to tell. I refused and went to trial. They found me not guilty of count one and guilty of counts two to five.  They gave me life from enhancing me because of my priors.”

The two priors were for very small amounts of crack. Walden got caught with 1.3 grams the first time and .5 grams the second time. He was charged with possession with intent to sell. He was sentenced to probation in both cases.  But the federal government used those two priors to trigger the career criminal statute and sentenced Walden to life. He was effectively doing life for around 50 grams of crack cocaine.  That’s why Obama pardoned him, because he was serving a disproportionate sentence....

But at the same time he was getting congratulated on his presidential commutation, he received a disconcerting letter from the sentencing court saying that even though his judge omitted to sentence him to [supervised release] at his original sentencing, the judge now wanted to impose a term of supervised release on Walden once he was released. The judge went back and did a re-do, issuing an order that would amend a judgement that was final nine years ago. If Walden tried to get back in court on some issue and change his sentence, he’d be time barred by the court — but it seems the court can do as it pleases when it comes to drug war prisoners, while those unjustly incarcerated must follow the rules....

For some clarity on the matter, The Fix reached out to some clemency experts — P.S. Ruckman Jr., a professor of political science who runs the Pardon Power blog, and Margaret Love, the former pardon attorney under former President Bill Clinton — to get their opinions on the legalities involved with pardons and what the courts can or can’t do in this situation. “The president has the power to grant commutations of sentence, with or without conditions,” Ruckman tells The Fix....  “Presidents have commuted sentences on the condition that prisoners never drink again, that they live with their parents, that they leave D.C., that they join the army, that they leave the United States and never return, etc. In the past, prisoners have refused attached conditions and chosen to remain in prison.  My understanding is that this was a conditional pardon.”

If 10 years [supervised release] was one of the conditions of clemency like attending the Bureau of Prisons’ Residential Drug Abuse Program was then Walden has to accept it as part of the clemency grant or stay in prison like Ruckman said. No one would do that, but if the 10 years supervised release wasn’t a condition of the grant of clemency, then the court shouldn’t have any right to impose it. That would be illegal.

“I understand that the president’s commutation order did not mention a term of supervised release,” Margaret Love tells The Fix. “In any case, the pardon power does not authorize the president to impose a new sentence (which is what a term of supervised release is). The court's power to amend the original judgment to impose a new sentence of supervised release at this point, or to impose any conditions on his release, seems highly doubtful. At this point the court has no power to impose a term of supervised release, effectively a new sentence.”...

Pursuant to Rule 36, the court sent notice to Walden that it intends to amend the Judgment and Commitment Order to correct the Court's omission of failing to impose mandatory terms of supervised release as required by the statute. The court intends to order that all terms of supervised release run concurrently for a net effective term of 10 years of supervised release. The court also intends to impose the Standards Conditions of Supervision that have been adopted by his Court. The court appointed a public defender and informed Walden that he could object to the imposition of the term of supervised release.

“I objected,” Walden says.  “The point is I have remained in zero trouble inside prison. The president gave me clemency because he believed in me.  The judge now wants to add 10 years supervised release onto my sentence after my sentence has been final for over nine years. This is a violation of due process. As an inmate I have no legal way to get back into court. They had their chance at sentencing.  I disagree with this reasoning and I have filed a statement that I object to this addition with my attorney.  This is an interesting situation. Many people seem interested in the outcome.  It is illegal and should be brought to the public's attention.”

Even Walden’s public defender wasn’t sure about the legalities involved in this case, “I am currently reaching out to defenders across the nation to see if they have input on whether this is permissible post-grant of clemency,” she wrote him. Currently the public defender is in the process of making a supplement to the objections that Walden has. Plus other prisoners who received clemency grants from Obama have not received letters from their judge and court attempting to amend a judgment that is already final. Walden is ready to get on with his life without [supervised release] hovering over his head.

“I would like to drive trucks after getting my CDL license,” Walden says. “I thank God for another chance. I have this desire to drive trucks and see the country at the same time. Perhaps I will have a chance to speak to younger people and explain to them how unwise choices have consequences. I can stop youth from making the same mistakes I have. I am blessed that Obama came into office and helped me, or I’d be just another number serving life behind bars. There may not always be a President Obama around to give people another chance. I will definitely take the opportunity to prove to people like the President-elect that some people are deserving of a second chance.  I would certainly not want to mess up someone down the line from getting the same relief as me.”

The legal issue here strikes me as an interesting mix of functionalities and technicalities.  There was, of course, no functional reason for the sentencing judge to impose any term of supervised release at initial sentencing when imposing an LWOP sentence. But now that a commutation has resulted in an offender getting released after serving less than a decade, there now is a functional reason for imposing at least some SR term (which would have been a required part of the sentence had the defendant been sentenced to less than LWOP).  But, technically, I think there is a forceful argument that if the Prez did not include the addition of an SR term in his clemency grant, then it is improper for the original sentencing judge to now add that on to the defendant's original (now commuted) sentence.

Notably, the White House clemency page reports that the "1,176 men and women" who have had their prison sentences commuted by Prez Obama includes "395 individuals who were serving life sentences." Thus there are literally hundreds of individuals who could have this kind of post-commutation issue arise (although I doubt all sentencing courts are going to be as proactive as the court that added 10 years of supervised release to Walden's sentence).

January 16, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

"Mistakes and Justice — Using the Pardon Power to Remedy a Mistake of Law"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Paul Larkin now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

American criminal law has never recognized a mistake-of-law defense. The principal rationale for rejecting it has been that the community knows what the criminal law prohibits.  That may have been a reasonable rule when there were only a handful of crimes, and each one also violated the contemporary moral code, but that rule makes no sense today, given the use of the criminal law to enforce thousands of sometimes technical, arcane administrative regulations.  Clemency, however, may be a perfect vehicle for the implementation of a mistake- or ignorance-of-the-law defense.

Throughout Anglo-American legal history, kings, presidents, and governors have used their pardon power as a vehicle to remedy injustices in the criminal justice system.  The conviction of a person for conduct that no reasonable person would have thought to be a crime certainly qualifies as a miscarriage of justice.  Presidents and governors should consider using their clemency authority to pardon legitimate cases of mistake or ignorance, which might particularly arise in connection with strict criminal liability or regulatory crimes.

January 12, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Marijuana reform and clemency conversations at the state and federal level

Two new lengthy pieces combining news and commentary on the clemency and marijuana fronts further reinforces my view that marijuana reform is a form of sentencing reform.  Here are the extended headlines and links to these two interesting reads:

January 5, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)