They’re not just for manufacturing untaxed whisky. They’re inherently unfair or a genuine disgrace.
One may be forgiven for clutching the stomach as the season for presidential pardons rolls around. Besides the obvious miscarriages of justice that so many high profile pardons represent, the very notion of a pardon by the president of a very large population, though constitutional, reeks of unfairness. Consider:
Of the millions of prisoners in this country, why should a very select few — a few hundred people — be granted a pardon? Why should the buddies of a president, or a particularly aggressive Justice Dept. official or low level prison system bureaucrat get “his” people, or his “type” of offender, out of prison, when no doubt countless other offenders present the same profile? In the name of justice, the presidential pardon has become an act of injustice, although it originally had merit, designed to right an occasional judicial wrong.
The only pardon we can think of that served the national interest was President Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon, which put a swift end to the the nation’s Watergate agony.
One cannot help but focus on the presidential pardons of high profile criminals. The New York Times wrote of the presidential pardon of one such individual, “A shocking abuse of presidential power.” No, it was not a comment about President Trump’s shocking pardon of the Blackwater contractors — convicted of such crimes as first-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. It was a comment on a pardon 20 years ago, President Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich. The disgrace of presidential discretion has long been with us.
Marc Rich sold oil to Iran at the same time Iran was holding 53 American hostages — a particularly heinous form of the crime of trading with the enemy. Rich also propped up the apartheid regime in South Africa by selling it some $2 billion of oil. His list of offenses goes on and on — illegal trading with North Korea, Libya, the USSR, etc. etc. Marc Rich was not even in the US when he was pardoned. On his last day in office, Clinton pardoned a fugitive.
And Donald Trump? Let’s look at those Blackwater pardons. The criminals had been sentenced to up to 30 years for crimes including first-degree murder when they were fired upon in Iraq. They were convicted by an American jury. The grounds on which they were released from prison —that they acted in self-defense — seem not to square with the facts, not to mention the jury verdict. It strikes us as — what’s the metaphor? over the top? bottom of the barrel? — to pardon a first-degree murderer.
It escapes us how Barack Obama pardoned a leader of a terrorist group, FALN, who was serving a 70-year sentence at the time of his release.
Then there are the political pardons, such as Trump’s pardon of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Obama’s pardon of Gen. James E. Cartwright, W. Bush’s pardon of Lewis Libby, and H.W. Bush’s pardon of Caspar Weinberger, to cite a few. The partisans of each of these individuals allege many facts as to why each was railroaded and deserved a pardon. As to the justice in so many of these political pardons, we remain unconvinced.
What about the “lesser” criminals? Obama pardoned a relatively high percentage of criminals who distributed, or conspired to distribute, cocaine — not a minor matter in our book. Not to mention, Obama also had his pet criminals, such as Major League Baseball star Willie McCovey. Another recent president pardoned one man for “manufacturing untaxed whiskey,” truly an exception on presidential lists of major criminals set free.
The pattern, unfortunately, goes way back. Look at the pardons of George H. W. Bush. One particular offense that he pardoned jumps out at us: making false statements to federal officials. This pardoned offense also shows up on Obama’s list of pardonees. Which brings us, of course, to Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. He was convicted of lying to the FBI. His defenders say he was set up; his detractors say he was a flagrant Trump-era offender. Either way, the offense for which he was pardoned is not new. All recent president have issued pardons for this.
There is a pattern: If you know the right people, or if you get lucky enough, your crime will vaporize — that is, from within the legal system. However, the acceptance of a pardon remains, as Gerald Ford famously said, an implicit acceptance of guilt.
No doubt, a few of the pardonees are truly innocent and deserve their get-out-of-jail-free card. In rarer cases still, those willing to go to prison rather than obey an unjust law are heroes, with or without a pardon. In the great majority of cases, however, a pardonee carries a stain on his reputation. This is as it should be — but also a small price to pay for their freedom and, in some cases, for their denial of freedom, or of life itself, to others.
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