Saturday, May 26, 2012

Merciful President v. Harsh (Incompetent) Bureaucrat(s)

The New York Times made the announcement on May 1, 1907, in a headline that read: MAY PARDON JANUARY. The brief article that followed informed readers that President Roosevelt might exercise the pardoning power in the case of John William January of Missouri by granting a commutation of January’s sentence “at once” or by granting a “outright” pardon. Roosevelt was reported to have become “interested” in the case.

January, whose real name was Charles William Anderson, was charged with breaking into the Post Office at Hennessey, Oklahoma, with the intent to commit larceny. The Federal Court at Guthrie sentenced the twenty-one year old to five years in prison in December of 1895. January was considered a “model prisoner” but, eventually, he decided that he would rather do other things. The Times originally reported January had served “the greater part” of his sentence, but he escaped from Leavenworth in October of 1898. That is, he served thirty-four months of a sixty-month sentence. On the other hand, with allowances for good conduct, January could have been released as early as sixteen months after the day he decided to escape.

The fugitive from justice first found a job with a railroad construction gang. He then moved to Kansas City and worked on a street railway. TheTimes said he was “steady and sober, worked hard, and saved his money.” After a few years, January bought out a small restaurant, then sold the business for a “good price” and went looking for a new one in a more “thriving locality.”

John William January had his pockets lined with cash. He was considered “one of the best citizens” of the community, although some were said to marvel at the fact that he could never be convinced to vote. In addition, January had a loving wife and child. And that is when his world came crashing down.

One day, as January was walking the streets, considering where his new restaurant might be built, he ran into a former inmate in the penitentiary at Leavenworth. The ex-convict knew that he could receive a sixty-dollar reward for information leading to January’s arrest, so he contacted prison officials. Two local policemen, who knew the restaurant owner and thought highly of him, were charged to make the arrest.

So, in 1907, the Times reported that, after “nine years of liberty,” the fugitive January had been “rearrested.” Eight days after the announcement of the President’s interest in the case, the former fugitive from justice was clearly a hot topic in and outside of Washington. It was now reported that the President had requested a “prompt report” on January from the Attorney General, Charles Joseph Bonaparte - promptness not being one of the primary characteristics of Bonaparte's Department. As the Times put it, "the most ordinary business" of Bonaparte's Department of Justice was prosecuted with noticeable "languor." It would respond to neither "kick" nor "prod." Roosevelt himself could not "stir" it.

Meanwhile, a “large number” (later reported to be in the “thousands”) of petitions were filed requesting clemency and the House of Representatives in the State of Missouri had approved of a resolution calling for such. The trial judge, the prosecuting attorney, the Chief of Police in Kansas City and the Warden at Leavenworth all supported a presidential pardon. They were joined by the Board of Trade the Chamber of Commerce and the Mother’s and Home Maker’s Club. Soon Senator William Warner (R-Missouri) and Representative Edgar Ellis (R-Missouri) were on board. Even the two policemen that reluctantly arrested January got into the act. As it turned out, only “citizens” were eligible for the sixty-dollar reward for the information leading to the arrest. The ex-convict who told on January had not yet attained that status, so the money was given to the arresting officers. They considered it “blood money” and started a “pardon fund.”

A sworn certificate reported thirty seven thousand citizens of Kansas City had signed a petition. The Times felt comfortable enough to suggest “all" of Missouri and Kansas were “clamoring” for a presidential pardon. January, the Post Office robber, was frequently compared to Jean Valjean, the pitiable (but fictitious) character in Hugo’s Les Miserables Valjean, incidentally, spent time in prison for stealing bread from a broken shop window. January led an “exemplary” life while fleeing from the law. He was - said the newspapers - “the modern Jean Valjean.”

The Times argued any other Attorney General would have needed only 24 hours to act on the case. But Bonaparte? He was another story.

More than a week after the Times had headlined the case, the Attorney General called a meeting of the press to answer critics and comment. Bonaparte told reporters he did not believe an “outright” presidential pardon was in order. After all, there were twenty-six months remaining on January's original sentence and sixteen months remaining with allowances for good behavior. Instead, the Attorney General recommended that President Roosevelt exercise the pardoning power by commuting the remainder of January’s sentence to some shorter specific period. The Pardon Clerk then dramatically carried an official copy of Bonaparte’s opinion out of the room, and over to the President, while the press conference continued.

In a matter of minutes, the Pardon Clerk returned to the press conference in what was reported as a “high state of consternation.” Bonaparte was informed that, despite his previous announcement, President Roosevelt (perhaps not without his own sense of high drama) insisted that a pardon be granted. As the Times reported the matter, the Attorney General had “hastily” considered the case and found himself “reversed” by the President.

After telephone communications between Roosevelt and the Department of Justice, a “compromise” was reached. January would return to prison. But a pardon would have the effect of commuting the sentence to a mere three months.

A red-faced Bonaparte issued a statement regarding the compromise. Refusing to just let it go, the Attorney General emphasized that it was “important” to “discourage attempts to escape among prisoners." On the other hand, he admitted that it was important to weigh this consideration against “the eminently beneficial effect of encouraging the real reformation of convicts.” If not anything, January’s “orderly and law abiding life” might offer an “inducement” to men “in a situation like his” to “lead such a life.”

In his Annual Report, Bonaparte (who called for public whippings of those who violated sedition laws and the death penalty for "habitual felons") repeated his view that January deserved to spend “some appreciable time in prison” to show “as a matter of strict right” that he “still belongs there.”

Two days after the pardon, a Times editorial rebuked Roosevelt for listening to Bonaparte’s “head” and for failing to trust his own “heart.” Those with a “gentler and wiser” view would have recognized that the “one good reason” for sending men to jail “had been attained” in January’s case. Indeed, the Times went so far as to argue that January’s exemplary conduct as a fugitive proved that “before he escaped he had been kept [in prison] too long.” His imprisonment was thus a “social waste.” As far as the Times was concerned, the President should have granted “an immediate and full pardon” for January’s “early indiscretion.”

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