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Politicians and Criminal Pardons

By Edited Mar 7, 2014 0 0

A potentially controversial prerogative of certain officials is the power to grant a criminal pardon to remit a criminal offence. This would seem to be a medieval anachronism, something from the time when the King, as a near-absolute ruler and judge, could condemn a person to death or, on the other hand, mercifully release a criminal. But what remains of this power today and how relevant is the executive power to grant criminal pardons in today's legal context?

First of all, as can be expected, what a pardon entails and who may grant it varies between jurisdictions. A pardon can be:

  • The cancelling or forgiveness of a sentence

  • The commuting (reduction) of a sentence

  • In some cases, the acknowledgement that a person was wrongfully or dubiously convicted

In some jurisdictions, the granting of a criminal pardon is a much more arbitrary matter than in others:

  • According to Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constitution, the president has full and sole jurisdiction for pardoning federal offences. He may do so at any time and for whichever offender he sees fit. For example, when President Richard Nixon resigned due to his involvement in the Watergate scandal, his successor Gerald Ford issued a pardon before Nixon had even been formally accused of any crime. For state crimes, the pardons process varies from state to state; sometimes, the Governor may have similar powers to those of the President; in other cases, a Pardon or Parole Board is the competent authority, or the Governor in conjunction with the Board.

  • In Canada, most pardons granted are limited in scope and based on strict rules of law. In effect, most convicted criminals have the right to apply to the Parole Board of Canada for a pardon 3 to 10 years after serving their sentence, depending on the gravity of their offence. If all legal criteria are met, the Board will automatically grant the pardon the effect of which will be limited to the applicant's criminal record being separated from the main database, so that it cannot be revealed during a criminal record check. There is another form of pardon granted under the royal prerogative of mercy called clemency. The Governor General and provincial Lieutenant Governors have theoretically broad powers to expunge a conviction or remit all or part of a sentence or fine; however, this, too, is constrained by legal rules: the Governor acts on the recommendation of a cabinet minister and the independence of the judiciary is respected: in practice, an executive pardon is only granted in exceptional cases, after all court options have been exhausted.

In a modern, democratic state, it would make sense to me that the power to grant <a href="http://legal-articles.deysot.com/criminal-law/concurrent-sentences-pardon-crimes-by-default.html">criminal pardons</a> should not be exercised arbitrarily, but should be governed by rules prescribed by law. At the same time, when used wisely and within the limits of the law, the power can present a valuable means of ensuring that justice is served in exceptional circumstances. Some recent cases of executive pardons being considered follow; the reader can judge their value for themselves:

  • Laurie "Bambi" Bembenek, who claimed her 1981 murder conviction to have been in error and had fought for decades to have her name cleared, applied for a pardon from the Governor of Wisconsin. In November, the state Parole Board rejected the application due to a lacking piece of documentation. Not long after, Bembenek died.

  • Unlike many previous US presidents, who tended to grant many pardons, Barack Obama did not do so until he had been in office for almost two years. At the end of 2010, he granted his first nine, including a pardon for a man who was convicted decades ago of cutting pennies down to dime size for use in a vending machine.

  • In New Mexico, a petition was presented to outgoing Governor Bill Richardson to pardon, of all people, the famed Western outlaw Billy the Kid for his murder of a Lincoln County sheriff. The request arose from a claim that Governor Lew Wallace had not kept a promise to pardon Billy in exchange for court testimony which he gave, and Richardson was asked to "right this wrong". But after finding no concrete evidence of the promise having actually been given, Richardson denied the pardon.

  • On the other hand, Doors singer Jim Morrison received a posthumous pardon at about the same time for showing his genitals during a 1969 concert; this was not well taken by his widow and surviving Doors members, who believe he never actually committed the crime in question and should rather be exonerated.


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