Saturday, March 15, 2008

Context: Notorious Presidential Pardons?

If you Google "presidential pardons," you are likley to run into a post at which claimes to feature a list of the 10 "most notorious presidential pardons in history." It includes the Whiskey Rebels, Confederate citizens, Jimmy Hoffa, Richard Nixon, Vietnam draft dodgers, Felt and Miller, George Steinbrenner, Casper Weinberger, Patricia Hearst and Marc Rich.

The list, and the descriptions provided, are problematic from the get-go. The pardon of the Whiskey Rebels, for example, was not the "first pardon in American history that overturned a criminal conviction." In addition, the authors seem clueless to the fact that the pardon was a wildly popular decision, opposed only by hard-core Federalists, who soon thereafter drove their faction into political oblivion.

Secondly, it is not clear what constitutes a "notorious" pardon to the creators of the list (Kristina Dell and Rebecca Meyers). If they were focusing on levels of fame or name- recognition, the list is certainly a train wreck. It overlooks Jean Lafitte, the "Birdman" of Alcatraz, Marcus Garvey, G. Gordon Liddy, movie star Duncan Renaldo, Jimmy "the Greek," jazz legend Hampton Hawes, race-car greats Junior Johnson and Rick Hendrick, best-selling author Harry Golden, several governors and numerous members of congress.

Third, the list is annoyingly skewed toward short-term memory, 8 of the 10 examples having occurred in the last 30 years. Indeed, it perfectly reflects the lack of research, motivation and insight that routinely characterize superficial discussions of "controversial" pardons. Read the list (linked above). Afterward, use your own definition of "notorious" and see how the "top ten" compare with these examples:

  • clemency used on behalf of an individual responsible for the torture and murder of more than sixty people
  • clemency for individuals who sprayed the House of Representatives with bullets and hit several congressmen in the process (some of the bullet holes remain to this day)
  • clemency for a man who sexually assaulted an eight-year-old girl, then stood on her neck as she drowned in a ditch
  • clemency for a man who tried to assassinate the President of the United States, one person being killed and another being wounded in the process
  • clemency for a man who did not request it, and even rejected it, but had it forced upon him so as to allow for his own execution
  • clemency for soldiers who shot American civilians at close range and mutilated their victims' bodies with bayonets
  • clemency for a man who, as a result of the president's decision, was to be released from prison. But, as it turned out, the convict never ever entered prison to being with. When he went to prison - in order to be released - he was detained and a federal district court ruled the president had used the pardon power in an unconstitutional manner
  • The president hands a prosecutor a sheath containing completed pardon warrants. Well, almost complete. Everything was written out except the names of the recipients! The president tells the prosecutor to use them however he wishes, just fill in the names at will
  • One president pardons some individuals just before he leaves office. The new president revokes the pardons and sends out messages to prison officials not to "deliver" them. One prisoner was already handed the paperwork, so he walked. But two other prisoners remained behind bars because a prison official had received their clemency warrants, but decided to stick them in a drawer for a while. That is to say, he did not "deliver" them.
Patricia Hearst? Jimmy Hoffa? Are you kidding me? Snoozers.

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