What is Clemency and How Does It Work?
Clemency is a term that refers to the act of showing mercy or leniency by a person in authority toward someone who has committed a crime, especially by reducing or pardoning their punishment. Clemency can be granted by a governor, a president, or a monarch, depending on the jurisdiction and the type of crime. Clemency is usually granted for humanitarian reasons, such as terminal illness, old age, or wrongful conviction, or for public policy reasons, such as promoting justice, reconciliation, or reform.
Clemency can take different forms, such as:
- Commutation: This is the reduction of a sentence to a lesser term or a different type of punishment. For example, a death sentence can be commuted to life imprisonment.
- Pardon: This is the complete forgiveness of a crime and the restoration of the rights and privileges of the offender. For example, a pardon can erase a criminal record and restore the right to vote.
- Reprieve: This is the temporary postponement of a punishment, usually to allow for an appeal or a clemency petition. For example, a reprieve can delay an execution until further review.
- Respite: This is the temporary suspension of a punishment for humanitarian reasons, such as illness or pregnancy. For example, a respite can allow an inmate to receive medical treatment outside prison.
- Remission: This is the cancellation of a fine or a forfeiture. For example, a remission can waive a monetary penalty imposed by a court.
Clemency is not a right but a privilege that can be granted or denied at the discretion of the authority. Clemency is usually granted after an application or a petition by the offender or their representatives, which may include evidence of remorse, rehabilitation, or other mitigating factors. Clemency may also be granted on the recommendation of a board or a commission that reviews clemency cases and advises the authority. Clemency may be subject to certain conditions or limitations, such as supervision, restitution, or admission of guilt.
Clemency is an important aspect of the criminal justice system that allows for flexibility, compassion, and correction of errors. Clemency can also serve as a tool for social change and political compromise. However, clemency can also raise ethical and legal questions about fairness, accountability, and transparency. Clemency can be controversial when it is perceived as arbitrary, biased, or corrupt.
Some examples of clemency cases are:
- Alice Marie Johnson: She was a first-time, nonviolent drug offender who was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole in 1996 for her role in a cocaine trafficking ring. She spent 21 years in prison before President Donald Trump granted her clemency in 2018, after a campaign by reality TV star Kim Kardashian West. Johnson has since become an advocate for criminal justice reform and clemency for other prisoners.
- Chelsea Manning: She was a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst who leaked classified information to WikiLeaks, exposing U.S. military and diplomatic activities around the world. She was convicted of violating the Espionage Act and other charges in 2013 and sentenced to 35 years in prison. President Barack Obama commuted her sentence to seven years in 2017, shortly before leaving office. Manning has since continued to speak out on human rights and civil liberties issues.
- Rod Blagojevich: He was the former governor of Illinois who was impeached and removed from office in 2009 for corruption charges, including trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Obama. He was convicted of 17 counts of wire fraud, extortion, bribery, and conspiracy in 2011 and sentenced to 14 years in prison. President Trump commuted his sentence to eight years in 2020, calling him a victim of a political witch hunt.
- Oscar LÃ³pez Rivera: He was a Puerto Rican nationalist and activist who was a member of the Fuerzas Armadas de LiberaciÃ³n Nacional (FALN), a militant group that sought independence for Puerto Rico from the U.S. and carried out bombings and attacks in the 1970s and 1980s. He was arrested in 1981 and convicted of seditious conspiracy, armed robbery, and weapons charges, among others, and sentenced to 55 years in prison. President Obama commuted his sentence to 35 years in 2017, after a widespread campaign by Puerto Rican leaders and celebrities. LÃ³pez Rivera has since been honored as a hero by many Puerto Ricans and supporters of independence.
Clemency is not only granted by the president of the U.S., but also by governors of states and territories, who have the power to grant clemency for state crimes. Some notable examples of state clemency cases are:
- Troy Davis: He was an African American man who was convicted of killing a white police officer in Georgia in 1989, based largely on eyewitness testimony that later recanted or contradicted. He maintained his innocence until his execution in 2011, despite appeals from human rights groups, celebrities, religious leaders, and former officials. His case sparked an international outcry and raised questions about the reliability of eyewitness evidence and the risk of executing innocent people. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied his clemency petition hours before his execution.
- Karla Faye Tucker: She was a woman who was convicted of killing two people with a pickax during a robbery in Texas in 1983. She became a born-again Christian while on death row and expressed remorse for her crimes. She appealed for clemency on the grounds of her religious conversion and rehabilitation, gaining support from religious leaders, politicians, media personalities, and even some relatives of her victims. Her case attracted worldwide attention and sparked a debate on the morality of capital punishment for women and repentant offenders. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Governor George W. Bush denied her clemency request, and she was executed in 1998.
- Ricky Ray Rector: He was a man who was convicted of killing two people, including a police officer, in Arkansas in 1981. He shot himself in the head after his arrest, causing severe brain damage that left him with an IQ of 70 and impaired mental functioning. He did not understand his trial or his sentence, and asked to save his dessert from his last meal for later. His lawyers argued that he was incompetent to be executed and appealed for clemency on the basis of his mental disability. His case became a political issue during the 1992 presidential campaign, when then-Governor Bill Clinton flew back to Arkansas to oversee his execution, despite pleas from civil rights groups and mental health advocates. The