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December 2, 2008

More proof politicians are very compassionate toward criminals ... who are fellow politicians

I am hoping readers might help me come up with a catchy word or phrase to describe the all-too-common phenomenon of "tough-on-crime" politicians becoming amazingly sympathetic to convicted felons who are fellow politicians.  I would have liked to had such a term for President Bush, who showed his soft side when he commuted the sentence of his pal Scooter Libby, despite the fact that he has not shown any similar compassion toward thousands of other first offenders sentenced to prison for crimes arguably less serious than Libby's (such as Victor Rita and others noted in this post).  And such a term now is needed to describe a number of prominent Senators who are seeking compassion for other prominent federal offenders.

First, consider the compassion now being expressed by Senator Orrin Hatch and other Republicans in this new Politico piece asking "Will Bush pardon Stevens?."  Here are some particulars:

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) hasn’t yet joined the gallery of notorious felons, small-time crooks and aggrieved innocents seeking pardons from President Bush, but it appears he’ll have the support of some of his soon-to-be-former colleagues if he does.

“He has served this country for over 50 years,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a widely respected member of the Judiciary Committee. “I think most anybody would probably say, ‘Yeah, he should be [pardoned].’ I think most anybody would say it’s fair to say that.” On Oct. 27, a District of Columbia jury convicted Stevens on seven counts of failing to report more than $250,000 in gifts and home renovations he received from 1999 to 2006. Stevens, 85, faces up to 35 years in prison if the conviction stands....

For Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the case for a pardon for Stevens has already been laid out. It’s all right there in a letter that Stevens’ lawyers sent to Attorney General Michael Mukasey — one in which they laid out their allegations of prosecutorial misconduct before and during his trial. “I look at what has been outlined in this letter to the attorney general, and I think if President Bush were to consider it, I think there would clearly be grounds based on what I have seen to go ahead and do so,” Murkowski said of a pardon.

Murkowski emphasized that the decision to pardon is Bush’s alone but that there “were clear instances in that trial where the prosecutors clearly overreached, and as a consequence of that overreaching, you have a verdict that comes down, and now a good man — a man who has served his state and his country — is now looking to that forced retirement.”

The letter from Stevens’ attorneys to Mukasey doesn’t specifically request a pardon but rather seeks a Justice Department investigation into its prosecutors’ conduct.

Informed readers should see a special irony concerning Senator Murkowski's suggestion that prosecutorial "overreaching" provides clear grounds for a pardon.  A concern about overzealous federal prosecutors was, of course, the rationale given by President Clinton for his notorious pardon of Marc Rich.  Ah well, I suppose I am just naive to expect politicians to be even a little bit principled in this arena.

Second, lest anyone think only Republicans deserve a clemency chutzpa award, consider the public statements of Democratic Senator Dick Durbin urging commutation of the prison sentence of former Illinois Governor George Ryan.  Here are details from this Chicago Tribune report:

Despite an acknowledged firestorm of criticism, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin said Monday that he was asking President George W. Bush to commute the federal corruption sentence of former Republican Gov. George Ryan to time served as an act of compassion and mercy.

"For those who would argue that a commutation makes light of his crimes, it is clear that he has already paid a significant price and will continue to do so as long as he lives," Durbin wrote of Ryan in a letter to Bush. "Justice is a sword that should be tempered with compassion. Further imprisonment will not, in my opinion, serve the ends of justice."

The request by Durbin, the second-highest ranking Democrat in Senate leadership, met with support from Ryan's attorney, former Gov. Jim Thompson, but was assailed by the head of Ryan's prosecution team and some of the jurors who convicted him. "George Ryan's crimes were serious breaches of the public trust," said former Assistant U.S. Atty. Patrick Collins, who led the Ryan investigation. Collins questioned why Ryan was being "humanized" by supporters of a commutation over other inmates, including elderly prisoners or single parents.

Denise Peterson of Hawthorn Woods, who served on the federal jury that convicted Ryan in 2006 on federal fraud, racketeering and related charges, said a commutation would send the wrong message to politicians looking to abuse the public trust. "I think that once again politicians are getting special treatment because of who they are, and that's not how it should be," Peterson said. "I had a front-row seat, and I understand that he's guilty and he's not sorry. He should stay in jail."

Durbin said public officials should be held to a higher standard of public trust. But he said that while Ryan's case may be of a high profile, it was little different from the thousands of people whom his office has tried to help because they feel "they have not been treated fairly by our government."

"I will speak out for justice in each and every case," Durbin said. "Because George Ryan happened to be an elected official does not mean that I would ignore the plea of his wife and family."

Funny, I must have missed all the media reports of Senator Durbin publicly "speak[ing] out for justice in each and every case" in which a not-so-prominent federal defendant (like Victor Rita, for example) has "already paid a significant price" for crimes less serious than those committed by George Ryan.

UPDATE:  For more packground on pardon issues and debate, ABC News has this new piece.  Among other interesting parts of the ABC piece is this bit of empirics:

The president, who has a nearly unfettered constitutional power to pardon, has used it sparingly.  He has granted fewer than 200 of 10,000 petitions filed in the past eight years.  

Candidly, I would have guessed that the President would get more than 10,000 clemency petitions over two terms.  Also, given that the Supreme Court gets nearly 10,000 petitions for certiorari each year and grants less than 100, this bit of data allows me to now say that a modern clemency petition has twice the change of success as a modern cert petition.

December 2, 2008 at 08:34 AM | Permalink


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Perhaps a bit thick of a quote, but here's the Duke of Angelo in "Measure for Measure":

"For I have had such faults...
When I, that censure him, do so offend,
Let mine own judgement pattern out my death,
And nothing come in partial. "(II.i.28-32)

Posted by: Fluffy | Dec 2, 2008 9:46:46 AM

It's a sad state of affairs for our criminal justice system. Maybe "back bench hand shakes" or "capital hill justice" would be easy terms to use.

Posted by: JT | Dec 2, 2008 10:35:02 AM

Compassionate hypocriticalism.

Posted by: George | Dec 2, 2008 10:54:50 AM

I wonder if Durbin is attempting to take one for the team. He is no fan of this administration. Maybe he is trying to lure the president toward this.

The additional pay-off is that Durbin will appear more "balanced" when/if he has to call for clemency on behalf of the current Governor of Illinois!

Posted by: P.S. Ruckman, Jr. | Dec 2, 2008 11:08:46 AM

Ryan whines that he’s already paid a price with loss of pension, not seeing his sick wife, and loss of reputation. He belatedly is expressing remorse for the first time, but never mentions the death of the Willis family’s six children that resulted from his actions. He has it better than most convicts who lose much much more including their home, friends, family, reputation, employability, often right to vote in other states, etc. Prisoners often are not allowed even to go to the funerals of loved ones or visit at their deathbeds. I feel sorry for his wife, but Ryan should realize that the consequences to his family are a result of his actions. You don’t release murderers because their family is sick. Ryan is a murderer. He deserved a far longer sentence.

He shouldn’t get special treatment, especially because he told the families with handicapped children through his aide that he would not increase slots for the waiver program to keep severely disabled children at home instead of in nursing homes or institutions because “they should die.” He was ruthless as a Governor despite some good things that he did. Power, influence, control, no matter who it hurt was his goal. He gave very little empathy to others in need. He was out of touch with the people who needed government help most.

Prisoners deserve mercy and rehabilitation, but lets be reasonable. Mercy is not just for the elite, wealthy, and connected. Let the punishment fit the crime! He doesn’t deserve shortening of an already ridiculously short sentence considering his crime. People died because of what he did! He has NEVER specifically acknowledged this fact and asked for forgiveness for this.

He may have made a good decision to commute death sentences, but in general he was heartless, arrogant, and deserves a far longer sentence. No special treatment for Ryan!

Posted by: Dr Linda Shelton | Dec 2, 2008 11:10:05 AM

As one who is himself seeking a Presidential pardon, after having served 7 2/3 years in federal prison and being disbarred from the practie of law, but who does not have the politically powerful supporting his Application, I would call the phenomenon you are describing "compassionate hypocracy", similar to what "George" has posted above. Obviously these are harsh and condescending words to the politically powerful, but they are no less harsh than is the application of the Federal criminal justice system to "Joe Six Pack", average American citizens. J. G.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Dec 2, 2008 11:22:11 AM

I'd call it: "No convicted politicial left behind."

Posted by: DEJ | Dec 2, 2008 12:06:33 PM

The whole Pardon system at the federal and State level needs to be dramatically overhauled. The current system is broken. If anyone needs convincing look to the State of North Carolina. Governor Easley would have residents of our state to believe that only 5 people in his eight years of office deserved a pardon! The Pardons that he has actually granted have been because evidence has proven people innocent of their crimes. Sure hope Bev Perdue, the first female Governor of North Carolina is more compassionate.

Posted by: anon | Dec 2, 2008 8:20:06 PM

I am absolutely astounded that people are not yelling at the top of their voice about the ridiculous idea of "he's missing seeing his wife". If you ask any person in jail if they "miss their partner", I'll take odds the answer is YES!!!! They are no longer even embarrassed about moves like this that are so obviously wrong wrong wrong.

Posted by: Donna Pool | Dec 3, 2008 11:10:53 PM

The prospect of rotting in prison for 35 years for anything less than wanton killing or mayhem is absurd...medieval even.

Stone-hearted knuckle-draggers who support such draconian punishments for crimes that exist mostly in the cynical imaginations of over-zealous, ambition-driven prosecutors are hardly even recognizable to me as fellow human beings.

It doesn't take much imagination to understand that even one day locked away from your life and the people you care about is a wrenching hardship that should be kept on the shelf for only the most dangerous offenders.

To blithely dismiss Ryan's public disgrace and fall from high place, his wife's poor health and all the rest is nothing short of breathtaking...and makes me feel bad to be a member of the same species as anyone who'd do it.

Posted by: John Kerr | Jan 2, 2009 10:44:38 AM

And BTW: "prosecutorial overreaching" appears to be a redundant expression these days. That's especially true at the federal level where "creativity" and "novel applications of law" are rewarded and prosecutors seldom have to prove cases because all but a tiny handful of "targets" are coerced into signing plea agreements... notwithstanding guilt or innocence or whether charges are appropriate.

The justice system (sic) and our constitutional protections have been in free-fall since the 1970s when politicians began demagoging the crime issue full-time.

Posted by: John Kerr | Jan 2, 2009 11:47:46 AM

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