Get rid of executive clemency

Posted: Dec 14, 2005 12:05 AM

Monday afternoon, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California refused to grant clemency to death-row inmate Stanley Tookie Williams. "Is Williams' redemption complete and sincere, or is it just a hollow promise?" Schwarzenegger queried. "Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings, there can be no redemption." Schwarzenegger also wrote that the facts of the case could not justify a grant of clemency.

 Schwarzenegger made the right move. Williams, who co-founded the brutal Crips gang in 1971, murdered four people in 1979, including a father, mother and daughter working at a motel. He was convicted by a jury of his peers in 1981 and has spent the last two decades in jail awaiting execution. He has never admitted culpability for the slayings of four innocents, and he has exhausted the appeals system. Due process of law has undoubtedly taken place here -- far more than due process, in fact.

 Every time a death-row inmate is executed, there are those who claim that he or she is innocent. For the most prominent inmates, movements begin to save them. The usual pressure point for such movements is the executive of the state involved. In California, the governor is empowered by the state constitution to "grant a reprieve, pardon, and commutation, after sentence, except in case of impeachment," subject to certain conditions. On the federal level, the president is empowered to grant pardons by Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constitution.

 A simple question must be asked: Why? Why should a prisoner, granted due process of law, be given the opportunity to plead his case before a political actor? If our system of law is designed to be impartial, why make it openly political by granting interest groups the opportunity to lobby an executive who might be beholden to them? Would Schwarzenegger have hesitated about signing off on the execution of a white man convicted of killing a black family? Would he have pondered the ins and outs of a criminal conviction if Hollywood stars like Jamie Foxx and cultural figures like Sister Helen Prejean had not stepped forward to defend Tookie? Would Schwarzenegger have glanced at the clemency petition without the glare of the media spotlight?

 Engraved on the Supreme Court building facade is the phrase "Equal justice under law." But is it truly equal justice when some -- the most famous, the most controversial -- receive the actual benefit of executive clemency while others do not? And is it equal justice when the people of California or the people of the United States allow a convict due process, only to see their process overturned by a single pen stroke?

 A brief look at historic clemencies demonstrates that granting executives the power to overrule juries and the criminal justice system means spitting in the eye of the American people:

 President Gerald Ford pardons former President Richard Nixon. On Sept. 8, 1974, just one month after Nixon's resignation from the presidency, Ford proclaimed that a trial would "cause prolonged and divisive debate over the propriety of exposing to further punishment and degradation a man who has already paid the unprecedented penalty of relinquishing the highest elective office of the United States." Would Nixon have received a pardon had he not been president? Would President Jimmy Carter have considered granting Nixon a pardon? To answer no means admitting an inherent inequity in our justice system.

 President William Jefferson Clinton pardons Marc Rich. Just before his exit from office, Clinton pardoned Rich, whose ex-wife was a high-ranking Democratic Party fundraiser who had donated large sums to Sen. Hillary Clinton's election campaign during the 2000 cycle. Even then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle questioned the pardon, calling it "inappropriate."

 Gov. Mark Warner (D-Va.) commutes the death sentence of convicted murderer Robin Lovitt. Lovitt, who stabbed Clayton Dicks to death with a scissors in 1988, saw his death sentence become a life sentence after Warner, who has presidential aspirations, sought to avoid rubberstamping the 1,000th execution in the United States since the re-institution of the death penalty in 1977. Were Lovitt number 999, he would likely be dead right now. Were he innocent, Warner should have pardoned him, not commuted his sentence.

 Our justice system is not infallible. Juries sometimes err (see Simpson, O.J.). Evidence is sometimes lost. Undoubtedly, once in a blue moon, our appellate system grants sanction to sentences for the wrongfully convicted. But the answer is not granting one person -- one very politically motivated person -- the power to abrogate the law.