Saturday, March 27, 2010

Benjamin Harrison, Pardons and Military Mercy

In his 1897 work, This Country of Ours, Benjamin Harrison called the pardoning power "one of the great executive powers." Harrison described the power to pardon as a remedy for "rigidity" in the criminal code, "the liability to error of every human tribunal" and the discovery of "new evidence" or "extenuating facts." But, he also noted that it was "not a pleasant thing to have the power of life and death. No graver or more oppressive responsibility can be laid upon a public officer."

Harrison's book also noted there was "an increasing amount of pardon business" coming to the desk of the President and he "often has many cases waiting." In March of 1890, the New York Times reported Harrison “stirred up the whole army establishment” by remitting the unexpired portion of a one-year sentence imposed upon trooper Dell P. Wild of the Eight Cavalry at Fort Yates, North Dakota. A lieutenant had asked Wild to assist him with the placement of a canvass on the roof of a shed behind his personal quarters. When Wild complained that he was not a servant, the lieutenant struck him then had him arrested. Harrison’s pardon came after the United States Senate had passed a resolution calling for the Secretary of War to produce a record of the trial.

Harrison was reported to have “exploded another bombshell” by granting a full pardon to Lewis Carter, an African American private who had been sentenced to ninety-nine years in prison by a court martial five years earlier. Carter deserted the infantry in order to escape punishment for a trivial offense, but when he was caught a few days later, he found himself charged with assault, robbery and desertion. Harrison was said to have made a “thorough investigation” of the case and “reprimanded the officials who had conducted the trial. The President concluded there had actually been neither an assault nor a robbery. At best, Carter was worthy of a five-year sentence for desertion.

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