Mercy for Mr. Plano

Posted: Feb 25, 2004 12:00 AM

Earlier this month, President Bush issued his 12th presidential pardon. The recipient was David McCall Jr., the onetime mayor of Plano, Texas. As the Dallas Morning News reported, McCall started with $100 and nine head of cattle. His fortune grew as small-town Plano grew.

But McCall's charmed life was not without bumps. In 1997, McCall pleaded guilty to making false entries on the books of a failed savings-and-loan association. He paid a fine and served five months in prison, followed by five years of probation.

Still, McCall also enjoyed forgiveness before he died last week. In his last month, Plano named a downtown plaza after McCall. The president made society's forgiveness official when he telephoned the McCall family and gave son Brian news of the pardon as his father lay in a coma.

You might expect critics of the federal justice system to bash Bush for exercising mercy too selectively. The president, after all, has been parsimonious with the pardon power. When he finally uses it, he uses it for a white white-collar criminal, from Texas no less and with ties to powerful Texas politicians. Worse, McCall's family recently applied for clemency -- which means McCall, if for good reason, jumped ahead of the line, in front of hundreds of applicants for a presidential pardon and some 1,500 petitioners for a sentence commutation.

Margaret C. Love, who was the pardon attorney for Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, noted that McCall's leapfrog over the pardon line "sends a signal that people don't have to play by the rules. All they have to be is well-connected."

But Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which opposes federal drug-sentencing laws, did not choose to criticize. McCall had been out of prison for years, he hadn't re-offended, and now, he was dying. She thought, "My first thought is, it's a no-brainer."

Her other thought, and it is shared by Love, is that Bush should pardon more people. Better yet, Bush should commute the sentences of those drug offenders serving obscenely long sentences. "I wish Bush would show that kind of compassion for someone who's got a healthy life ahead of him," said Stewart.

Bush has yet to commute a sentence. To his credit, Clinton showed that kindness to a handful of non-violent drug offenders who had been sentenced to decades behind bars for first-time offenses. These women broke the law and deserved to do time. But more time than your average murderer or rapist? There was no justice in those sentences.

The presidential pardon, with its ability to commute sentences, exists in part to curb excesses in the justice system. When a first-time non-violent drug offender named Clarence Aaron is sentenced to life without parole for an offense he committed in 1992 at age 23, justice demands that someone -- and only Bush has the power to do it -- correct that gross injustice by releasing Aaron, who has been in prison for more than a decade.

As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said in a speech in San Francisco, "This young man has not served his full sentence, but he has served long enough. Give him what only you can give him. Give him another chance." Kennedy was referring to sentences less draconian than Aaron's.

David McCall had a folksier story. As the Dallas Morning News reported, McCall had a story about his life, in which he likened himself to a turtle that found itself on top of a post. "The turtle couldn't get on a post on its own. The truth is that somebody had to put me up there. The thing is that I'll never be more than a turtle, and there are others now waiting to be turtles on the post."

Forget the post. Clarence Aaron would settle for living outside of maximum security. Only President Bush can get him there.