Clemency is a failsafe for system failure. It’s a power held by governors and presidents to fix mistakes, to clean up when the courts get it wrong and convict and incarcerate the innocent, or over-sentence the guilty. Ideally, clemency is a tool where the poor and powerless can fight back against an overwhelming, all-powerful judicial system.
That’s the idealistic view. Clemency is more often used for political gain and/or for those lucky enough or wealthy enough to get access to the presidents and governors who hold the power.
Richard Nixon pardoned Jimmy Hoffa for jury tampering and fraud. Nixon himself was later pardoned by Gerald Ford for crimes he might have committed or participated in while in office. New York Yankee’s owner George Steinbrenner admitted that he was guilty of making illegal contributions to Nixon’s reelection campaign in order to obtain a presidential pardon from Ronald Reagan.
Less famous criminals are often pardoned without rhyme or reason. A few years ago, Haley Barbour, the Governor of Mississippi, granted clemency to five inmates, not because they were the most deserving, but because he got to know them when they were doing work around his mansion as part of a prison work program.
Thirteen years ago, I co-founded the California Innocence Project with the mission of using all legal means to free the innocent from California prisons. The project has had some great success. We’ve walked a dozen innocent people out of prison, three who served more than 20 years of wrongful incarceration.
These innocent men and women had no access to the power of clemency. They were poor. They were not part of any political party or agenda. No one knew who they were or the facts of their cases.
But we’ve also failed to free a dozen other clients with strong cases of innocence. One of them, Bill Richards, was declared innocent by a tough-on-crime, former prosecutor judge, only to sit in prison for years after the verdict while the government appealed the reversal. Finally, the California Supreme Court ruled that Richards should spend the rest of his life in prison because an expert shouldn’t have been allowed to recant his trial testimony; a technicality that has no bearing on the prisoner’s innocence.
About a year ago, I was lying in bed thinking about Bill, and the 11 other clients in similar situations. All the cases had strong facts supporting innocence; yet we’d been banging our heads against judicial wall after judicial wall for years—without the only important result…freedom for our clients.
I thought about the power of clemency. Governor Brown, with the stroke of a pen, could end the surrealistic nightmare of wrongfully incarceration for these 12 Californians. But these innocent men and women had no access to the power of clemency. They were poor. They were not part of any political party or agenda. No one knew who they were or the facts of their cases.
I decided we needed to change that. We needed to raise the profile of these cases and our cause. We needed the opportunity to speak out about these innocent people and get the media speaking about them as well. We needed to get our clients out of the shadows of our society—out of the cold and dark.
The idea for the Innocence March was born.
I decided on that night I would walk 600 miles from our office in San Diego to the governor’s office in Sacramento and personally deliver clemency petitions for our innocent clients.
Along the way, I’d talk to as many people who would listen; Rotary Clubs, college students, and as much media as I could get interested. Two of my young staff attorneys, Michael Semanchik and Alissa Bjerkhoel, soon agreed to walk with me the entire way. If my 47-year-old body couldn’t make it, they would complete the mission.
For me, it will be a journey of hope. Hope we can raise awareness about the failures of our justice system. Hope we can get Governor Brown’s attention. Hope in the form of the 12 clemency petitions we will carry for 600 miles.
Should governors exercise their clemency powers to free innocent prisoners that the courts are unwilling or unable to help? Say why or why not in COMMENTS.