Willie Horton's legacy

Posted: Dec 13, 2002 12:00 AM
When a Massachusetts prison gave a weekend pass to convicted murderer Willie Horton, it released a chain of events that reverberate through America today. The first result was the brutal 1987 torture/rape of a Maryland woman in front of her hogtied fiance. The second result was political. Then-Sen. Al Gore, and later an independent campaign supportive of then-Vice President George Bush, ran TV spots on Horton during the 1988 presidential election. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis lost. American politics then embraced two dangerous myths -- one, that the episode was racial, because the TV spots showed Horton's black face; and two, that any politician who innocently releases the wrong convict is toast. Hence the drop in presidential pardons from 406 under Ronald Reagan, to 77 from Bush pere and 56 in the first term of Bill Clinton -- before the fire sale of pardons as he neared his White House farewell -- and zero from George W. Bush to date. Back to the myths. While Democrats complained that Willie Horton was about race, his story really was about crime and arrogance. Horton never should have been furloughed. He had been sentenced to life in prison and was not eligible for parole for years -- when the furlough program was designed to facilitate inmates' re-entry into society. If Dukakis had voiced outrage at this blunder and worked to fix it, his supporters wouldn't have had to try to dismiss the furlough issue as racist. And they never understood, it wasn't racism that hurt Dukakis, but his arrogant veto of a bill to ban furloughs for first-degree murderers, which showed a clear lack of compassion for victims. George W. Bush, I'm glad to say, is no Michael Dukakis. He doesn't dismiss anti-crime activists as kooks. He doesn't display a cool disdain for people who believe in punishing thugs. He's also a Republican, which means he should see the value in a tool entrusted to the executive in order, among other things, to curb excessive sentences -- that is, to curb government power when it is abused and overused. Giving Willie Horton a weekend pass -- that's undergoverning. Federal mandatory minimum drug sentences that often place nonviolent first offenders behind bars for decades -- that's overgoverning. Republicans are supposed to believing in governing just right. And to use the pardon power just right, you have to use it. Yes, it was misused by Clinton, who handed out pardons to convicted Puerto Rican terrorists to help his wife win her New York Senate seat, and later to a spate of convicts who had greased their way to pardon consideration. At this moment, there are thousands of nonviolent drug offenders serving draconian sentences. They deserved to go to prison, they just didn't deserve the length of their sentence. There's Clarence Aaron, in prison in Atlanta, who faces a life sentence without parole for hooking up two drug dealers -- his sentence is the same that FBI agent-turned-traitor Robert Hanssen is serving. At age 19, Chrissy Taylor was sentenced to 19 years for buying legal chemicals for her boyfriend's illegal drug operation. Nineteen years? A Nebraska federal judge has asked Bush to commute the sentence for first-time drug offender Hamedah A. Hasan because 27 years is simply "unjust." Dukakis made the mistake of not caring about people outraged when the system screwed up. As Margaret Love, pardon attorney for Bush pere, noted, Clinton's mistake was that he "simply did not understand or appreciate the public nature of the pardon power, or his obligation to stand accountable for its principled exercise even at the end of his term." It's time for Bush to appreciate the power, exercise it and show his many scoffers how the power to pardon can be done right.