Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Comment: Bush Has His Own Isaac Parker

In 1875, Ulysses S. Grant sent Judge Isaac Parker to the Western District of Arkansas. Parker’s original assignment was to “get things straightened out” in the area in “a year or two.” But his tenure in that court, which covered more territory than any other court in America, would wind up stretching across twenty-one years.

Parker tried his first case in the “Court of the Damned” on May 10, 1875. A little over a month later, he handed down his first death sentence. After only four months on the job, he constructed a giant scaffold that could be viewed from his office window. But it was no standard scaffold. Parker’s “doorway to hell” (reproduced on the left) could accommodate the hanging of twelve persons at once. Thousands would come from miles away to see the spectacular creation "do justice." From 1875 to 1889, “hanging” Judge Parker also served as his own court of appeals. As a result, the only real appeal from an Isaac Parker sentence was the President of the United States, and the pardon power.

Eight different presidents would have the opportunity to extend clemency to Judge Parker defendants. And that they did, more than three hundred times! Predictably, Grant was least aggressive in his use of clemency. But Parker's brand of justice was so outrageous that the other Republican administrations (Hayes, Arthur, B. Harrison, McKinley, T. Roosevelt and Taft) felt almost compelled to use the pardon power. Grover Cleveland's administrations (March 4, 1885, to March 3, 1889, and March 4, 1893, to March 3, 1897) were another story.

Cleveland’s two terms featured more clemency activity in relation to Parker defendants than any of the Republican administrations and the “hanging” judge’s personal opinion was noticeably less influential in Cleveland’s decision making. Indeed, Parker’s “recommendation” was present in only forty of one hundred and four clemency decisions. Cleveland also extended clemency in thirty-five cases in which Parker imposed death sentences. Parker’s “recommendation” appeared in only nine of the thirty-five decisions. It was clear that President Cleveland saw the pardon power as a legitimate - and much needed - check on the harsh justice of Isaac Parker.

Now comes the end of the administration of George W. Bush. When he came to office eight years ago, he wrapped himself in the theme of "compassionate conservatism" - a theme which critics feel has yet to be operationalized in any meaningful way. Regardless, today, out in a space of land much much larger than the Western District of Arkansas are thousands and thousands of prisoners who have experienced the harsh administration of mandatory minimum sentences. Many of them are first-time offenders who committed non-violent offenses. They have learned - as has everyone affected by their imprisonment - that the justice system can construct huge, impressive mechanical devices to automatically send "signals." But, now, Mr. President, maybe now more than ever, it is time for them to also learn that criminal justice in the United States is not the duty and function of a single branch of our government, or even two. The courts may feel bound by the legislature. And legislators may feel bound by constituents and public opinion. But, in matters of criminal justice, President Bush, thanks to the U.S. Constitution, the only thing that constrains you is a compassionate human being's idea of the right thing to do, or not do.

Mr. President, reach into the thousands of clemency applications that are sitting in the Office of the Pardon Attorney right now - many of which have been sitting there for years and years - and do what you know is the right thing to do. Do what should have been done when Mr. Clinton left office. Use the pardon power as it was meant to be used - or at least use it in the manner in which it is best used - to round off the rough edges of justice without reference to personal and partisan considerations and with a sense of humility and, yes, compassion. In addition to giving real life meaning to the phrase "compassionate conservatism," you will enliven the proverb we are all better off to remember, "There, but for the Grace of God, go I."

1 comment:

Refpowa said...

C'est ce qui peut arriver dans des pays comme les Etats-Unis.

We had last week, in France, a movie about the presidencit pardon when death penalty was still legal.

Thanks to god, we don't have that anymore

blogger templates | Make Money Online