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June 5, 2018

Is all the recent Trump clemency action creating (unhealthy?) excitement among federal prisoners?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy Washington Examiner article headlined "Alan Dershowitz says anyone can get clemency from Trump, as buzz builds behind bars." Here are excerpts:

President Trump issued his first prison commutation after lunch with Alan Dershowitz. The men talked about Mideast politics before Trump "asked me what else was on my mind, and I told him.  I took advantage of the moment,” the longtime Harvard law professor recalled.

Dershowitz told the president about Sholom Rubashkin, a kosher meatpacking executive who was seven years into a 27-year prison sentence for financial crimes. Not long after, Rubashkin in December became the first — and so far only — person Trump released from prison. "You have to appeal to his sense of injustice," said Dershowitz, who often says on TV that Trump is treated unfairly in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. "He feels he is now being subject to injustice, and so he's very sensitive to injustices."

Trump's approach to clemency, exhibited with a flurry of recent statements and official actions, is markedly different from his recent predecessors, generating enormous excitement among inmates.  Dershowitz believes just about anyone has a shot at bending Trump's ear, even though most successful cases have been pushed by well-connected advocates.   "I think if you write a letter to the president and you set down the case in a compassionate way, I think his staff knows that he's looking for cases of injustice. But you have to write it in a compelling way,” he said. “They have to write something that will catch the attention of someone on the president's staff."

So far, Trump has issued one prison commutation and five pardons.  But the pace is quickening.  Last week, he posthumously pardoned boxer Jack Johnson at the behest of “Rocky” actor Sylvester Stallone, saying Johnson’s early 1900s conviction was a race-motivated injustice.  On Wednesday, Trump met in the Oval Office with celebrity Kim Kardashian, who lobbied him to release Alice Johnson, a grandmother jailed for life since 1996 on drug-dealing charges.  Early on Thursday, Trump tweeted that he would pardon conservative author Dinesh D'Souza, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to a campaign-finance felony. Hours later, Trump told reporters he was considering pardoning celebrity chef Martha Stewart and former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the Illinois Democrat who allegedly tried to sell President Barack Obama's Senate seat.

Although Johnson has not been given clemency, she remains optimistic.  “I'm feeling very hopeful after speaking with Kim about how well the meeting went with President Trump,” Johnson said in an email from prison Friday, facilitated by her longtime supporter Amy Povah, who leads the CAN-DO Foundation....  “I have strong reason to believe that President Trump is going to surprise many people,” said Povah...

Dershowitz said there's a method to the apparent madness of Trump’s clemency grants, which are a sharp break from the early-term stinginess of his recent predecessors. "You have to make him say to himself, 'There but for the grace of God go I, or other people I identify with.' He has to feel the injustice. It's not enough to get online with hundreds of other people showing a law was misapplied. There has to be a sense of gut injustice,” he said....

If there’s anyone who would know Trump’s thinking on clemency, it’s Dershowitz. In addition to pushing Rubashkin’s release, he was consulted by Trump in advance of the recent pardons of D'Souza and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney who was convicted in 2007 but never imprisoned for making false statements. “I said I thought they were both injustices, that there was a whiff of politics around the decision to prosecute D’Souza, and that I did not think Scooter Libby had committed perjury — I thought there was just a difference in recollection,” Dershowitz said.

"When I made the appeal on behalf of Rubashkin, I said, 'You are a businessman, you understand what happens when the government and prosecutors manipulate the system and lower the value of your company in order to increase the value of losses and increase the sentence.' As soon as I said that, he said, 'I get that. I get that. I've been there,’” Dershowitz said. "He immediately glommed onto it because he understood the business implications of it ... there wouldn't have been any losses, or minor losses, but because the government drove the price down, it drove the sentencing guidelines way up."...

“I've always thought President Trump would step up and finish the job that President Obama started but never completed,” said Michelle West, a clemency aspirant in prison for drug-related crimes since 1994. “My daughter, Miquelle West, went to the Obama White House for a clemency summit. In our wildest dreams we never thought that I would be passed over considering she was invited to attend.” West said in an email relayed by Povah that “my daughter was 10 when I went to prison and I pray President Trump will consider me worthy of a second chance.”

Crystal Munoz, 11 years into a 20-year sentence for dealing marijuana, said that she, too, was hopeful, sending Povah the draft of a letter for Trump. Munoz, 38, gave birth to her youngest child in prison.  Connie Farris, a 73-year-old inmate jailed for mail fraud, said "I will never, never give up hope that our president will start releasing women such as myself and others. Please President Trump hear our cry." Farris, seven years into a 12-year sentence, said her husband of 53 years suffers from muscular dystrophy and needs her support.

Although there’s significant hope stemming from Trump’s unconventional approach, there’s also some skepticism that everyday inmates can win a presidential reprieve. “The problem is, the president’s process is a little haphazard, it seems, and a little ad hoc. And then you have this completely Byzantine dead-end of a process at the Justice Department,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

“I think people are encouraged that he’s going around the Justice Department to look at deserving cases, but it’s not clear that anybody has the ability to get in front of him — so sort of good news, bad news,” he said.  Ring said Dershowitz’s contention that anyone can win clemency with a letter is “a little naive.”  

“There are people who buy lottery tickets every Friday and they’re optimistic because they don’t know the odds. And when people see a winner, that gives them hope,” he said.

Like Kevin Ring, I am a bit concerned to hear that there may be "enormous excitement among inmates" given Prez Trump's clemency record to date.  He has only commuted a single sentence so far, and I have no reason to believe he has plans to start issuing dozens (let along hundreds) of additional commutations anytime soon.  Political realities has seemed to be influencing all of Prez Trump's clemency work to date, and precious few federal prisoner have political forces in their favor.  I sure hope Prez Trump will, as Amy Povah put it, "surprise many people," but I think hopes ought to be tempered for now.

Prior recent related posts about Trumpian clemency activity:

June 5, 2018 at 12:36 AM | Permalink


I think we have gotten so used to criticizing Trump at every turn that we've become desensitized to the notion of giving him credit for anything positive. I have immense respect for your brilliant analyses of all things political, but assuming the worst, ..."given Trump's clemency record to date." How come, as Dershowitz points out, we don't give Trump credit for being one of the few Presidents that granted a commutation in his 1st year of presidency? Conversely, Pres. Obama, only granted 1 in his first term at the end of his 3rd year in office and didn't grant any more until his second term. Heavens, what if Obama had not been re-elected - he might have gone down in history, a Democrat and first African American president as the stingiest president ever, especially since he didn't show an interest in clemency until Russell Simmons published an open letter with over 200 celebs, athletes and prominent supporters signed on. In it, he suggested that Obama create a clemency panel due to problems at OPA and within a few months, that's precisely what happened. Coincidence? I had a chance to talk to Russell about it and I don't think so.
Kim Kardashian's attorney, Shawn Holley contacted me in an effort to connect with Alice and this momentum has been building for quite some time. I have had to listen to so many people tell me that Trump will not grant any clemencies - after he granted one -it didn't count because Rabashkin was wealthy with connections. Everyone said there would be no CJ reform of any kind with Trump yet many of us formerly incarcerated people were invited to the White House to champion prison reform in Trump's second year. We were attacked by some of our own allies and friends. There is always a reason to find the down-side at each and every turn. Now, people are bashing Kim Kardashian, so I wonder what will happen after Alice receives clemency. I sure hope people will finally give Trump some credit and maybe, just maybe, praise him for it.

Posted by: Amy Povah | Jun 5, 2018 1:51:39 AM

Amy: I have given Trump lots of credit for being willing to use his clemency power early, and been criticized here for it. But we are still yet to see Trump use this power often. Five grants over 17 months is still a stingy record, and you know I criticized Obama for not doing a lot more in both his first and second terms.

If/when Alice Johnson gets clemency, Trump will get plenty of credit in this space from me. If (and I hope when) he grants many more clemencies, he will get even more credit. But given that, as you know, there are many tens of thousands of over-sentenced persons in federal prisons, and thousands more getting over-sentenced in the federal system every year, he has a lot of work to do before we get to #MAGA in this arena.

Meanwhile, though, I give you soooo much credit for both your energy and optimism. People like you help ensure that these issues stay at the forefront of our public dialogue. And I hope you get a chance to tell Trump that the definition of #MAGA is to beat Obama's records (by a wide margin)!

Posted by: Doug B | Jun 5, 2018 9:01:08 AM

Trump is fulfilling my law of political irony. George Bush in 2000 debate: there will be no nation building. Went on orgy of nation building.

Trump: don't be gentle on criminals. Duterte is a great guy. He will empty the prisons.

Posted by: David Behar | Jun 5, 2018 11:41:46 AM

Berman: If/when Alice Johnson gets clemency, Trump will get plenty of credit in this space from me.

This is a drug kingpin. Grandma likely serially killed dozens of competitors, and caused the over dose deaths of hundreds of customers. Not a good choice for advocacy of decarceration. She is a frickin' natural disaster, like Hurricane frickin' Maria. She likely also brought in 10 times Berman's salary. Perhaps, she can be rehabilitated to work as a nanny or hotel maid. I do know any kids left in her care will be well behaved.

Posted by: David Behar | Jun 5, 2018 11:52:39 AM

David, I though you were going to try to stick to citing data/studies and try to keep the tiresome repetitive rhetoric to a minimum. Please try harder.

Posted by: Doug B | Jun 5, 2018 12:14:54 PM

How can you make such outlandish statements about a case you clearly know nothing about! Alice had to borrow money to put up bail, so no, she wasn't making 10 times Berman's salary. In most the cases I profile on the CANDO site, there were literally no fruits/assets symbolic of the so-called massive drug dealing alleged. Often, a handful of people at the top will have assets, but the majority tossed into the indictment were small spokes in the big wheel living in poverty, and sadly, the most culpable cut deals because #1 many have no scruples and would send their mother to prison for a sent reduction #2, the main leaders have the bulk of intel and are more appealing to the prosecution that can rack up big numbers of minions in the indictment and #3 it's easier to convince a major drug dealer that they deserve 20-LIFE than someone like myself who merely collected bail money but was also looking at 20-life because conspiracy transfer guilt from one person to the next.

And Doug, you can say and do no wrong as far as I'm concerned. I believe Trump granted a commutation in his firs year for a reason. It signals that he is an outsider, once again, and has an unorthodox approach. That's refreshing, because so many have suffered from the bureaucratic nightmare of seeking justice through clemency the conventional way through a broken mechanism that desperately needs repair. Obama tried another approach and while many were saved, it was, as Holder stated, "a logistics nightmare." Over 10,000 should have received clemency - I don't see that happening under Trump, but I DO think anything is possible. He's a wild card.

Posted by: Amy Povah | Jun 5, 2018 3:52:59 PM

@Amy writes, "He's a wild card."

In other words, a criminal justice trump card.

Posted by: Daniel | Jun 5, 2018 4:12:57 PM

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