A Better St. Louis. Powered by Journalism.
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Print
  • Email

Pardon you, Haley

In Commentary

7:00 am on Thu, 01.19.12

"For as in absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other."

--Thomas Paine

I teach a course in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at a local university. One of the things my students have taught me over the years is that people are largely oblivious to the pardoning authority enjoyed by most chief executives.

Students are invariably stunned to learn that the president or a governor can override the verdicts of judges and juries by summarily erasing a criminal conviction, thereby setting the guilty free to reoffend with a clean record. Further, the exercise of this prerogative is a plenary decision, meaning that it does not have to be justified nor is it subject to further review. That sort of unbridled power just doesn't seem American — because it isn't.

When the founders drafted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, they borrowed freely from their English forefathers. Grand juries, warrants, indictments are all mentioned without ever being defined. There was no need to specify what these terms meant because the writers were simply incorporating features of the familiar British system into their own.

One aspect of colonial governance they sought to preserve was the king's power to forgive criminals. Article II specifically grants the president authority to "pardon offences against the United States, except in cases of impeachment."

Presidential pardoning power is obviously broad but limited to federal crimes. We operate under the doctrine of dual sovereignty: the United States is a sovereign and the individual states are quasi-autonomous sovereignties within it. Pardoning power for state crimes thus rests with the governor of the state in which the offense occurred.

Various state constitutions provide pardoning authority in different fashions. Nine states have taken the decision out of the governor's hands and vested it in independent boards established for that specific purpose. The rest are patterned on the presidential model with varying constraints imposed from place to place.

In Missouri, for instance, pardon applications must be submitted to the Board of Probation and Parole for "investigation and recommendation." The governor, however, is not bound to follow the board's advice and his power is not limited by it.

These arcane matters are normally of concern only to bored undergraduates in political science classes. Historically, pardoning authority has been judiciously invoked. Perhaps its most controversial application was Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon — a decision that I found to be outrageous at the time, but that I now feel was probably the right thing to do.

Recently, however, outgoing Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour elevated the issue of pardons from its usual obscurity and transformed it into a national debate. Before leaving office, Barbour granted clemency to 215 persons who had been convicted of a variety of crimes under state law. Most received full pardons, including several convicted murderers who were serving life sentences.

A convict who receives a commutation benefits from a lessening of punishment. A death sentence, for instance, may be commuted to life in prison or a life sentence reduced to 20 years. Even if the inmate's sentence is reduced to time already served, he is still a convicted felon upon release and can still be subject to court supervision once freed.

But a person granted a full pardon has his slate wiped clean. He now enjoys the same rights and privileges as any other citizen and is answerable to no one. Federal law prohibits persons convicted of a felony from possessing firearms. That's no problem for the pardoned criminal, however, because his conviction has been erased by executive fiat.

Barbour anticipated the restoration of firearms rights. Indeed, among the reasons he cited for the pardons was his desire to allow the freed killers to "hunt and vote." One potential new gun owner in Mississippi is David Gatlin, who formerly worked as a prisoner-trustee at the governor's mansion.

The last time Mr. Gatlin is known to have had a gun in his hand, he used it to shoot his estranged wife, Tammy, in the head while she held their two-month-old child in her arms. He's one of the freed murderers that the ex-governor would "let my grandchildren play with," so I'm sure he's a fine fellow but he may have problems with impulse control.

Suppose for one horrific minute that Tammy was your daughter. Nothing will ever fill the gaping hole that her killing has ripped in your heart but rather than seek vengeance on your own, you relied on the due process of law to extract justice.

You sat through the interminable court proceedings, dutifully attending every hearing, relived her murder at trial and took the stand to give a victim-impact statement where you explained to a jury of strangers what the loss of your daughter meant to you.

Ultimately, you left the courthouse exhausted but assured that your child's killer would never again be free to harm another. Now you learn that a fat-headed political hack decided to celebrate his retirement from public life by returning the murderer to your community. "Honey, guess who I ran into at the gun shop today?"

Of course, all this would have been palatable had the governor brought Tammy back as well. Unfortunately, even the ancient power of kings has its limits.

guzy100michaelwM.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon. To reach him, contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.

No Comments

Join The Beacon

When you register with the Beacon, you can save your searches as news alerts, rsvp for events, manage your donations and receive news and updates from the Beacon team.

Register Now

Already a Member

Getting around the new site

Take a look at our tutorials to help you get the hang of the new site.

Most Discussed Articles By Beacon Members

Conference of American nuns will mull response to Vatican charges

In Nation

7:55 am on Fri, 08.03.12

Meeting in St. Louis next week, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious will have its first opportunity as an assembled group to consider what to do after the Vatican issued a mandate for change this spring. It calls on the conference to reorganize and more strictly observe church teachings.

The 'free' Zoo

In Commentary

7:51 am on Tue, 05.22.12

When a family of four goes to the St. Louis Zoo, they can be forgiven for not knowing it will cost them $60, $72 if they park. If they can't pay, the alternative is to tell the kids they can't do what kids do at the zoo.

Featured Articles

House sends Boeing incentive bill to Nixon

In Economy

12:55 pm on Fri, 12.06.13

The Missouri House easily passed legislation aimed at attracting production of the 777x, a move that wraps up a legislative special session that saw little suspense and few surprises. The bill now goes to Gov. Jay Nixon, who has strongly supported the legislation.

Gandhi inspired Mandela on South Africa's 'Long Road to Freedom'

In World

10:10 am on Fri, 12.06.13

Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at the age of 95, was a towering moral figure of the 20th century -- along with Mahatma Gandhi. It was no coincidence that Gandhi and Mandela, whose paths never crossed directly, both embarked on their campaigns against discrimination in South Africa. It was when Mandela won election as South Africa’s first black president that Gandhi's influence became apparent.

Featured Articles

Regina Carter brings jazz and therapy to Children's Hospital

6:36 am on Mon, 12.09.13

One night, the violinist is taking bows before a standing ovation at Jazz at the Bistro. The next afternoon, some of her audience may have trouble standing, but the kids in the playroom at Children's Hospital were no less appreciative. “Jazz is medicine personified," according to a doctor who brings in the jazz musicians.

Encore: Dead before death

In Performing Arts

12:58 am on Fri, 12.06.13

For years , the author was certain he would never come to appreciate The Grateful Dead, let alone be a Deadhead. But little by little, he's come around. He talks about his conversion and relates a real evolution: by a musician who went on to play with the Schwag, a Dead cover band.

Featured Articles

Schlichter honored with St. Louis Award

In Region

4:57 pm on Tue, 12.03.13

The attorney has founded Arch Grants, which brings together nonprofit philanthropy and commercially viable opportunitiesto fund new business startups, and Mentor St. Louis, which finds adult mentors for elementary students in the St. Louis Public School System. He was the driving force behind the state's historic tax credit program.

BioGenerator sets open house to celebrate new digs for entrepreneurs-in-residence

In InnovationSTL

12:29 pm on Tue, 11.12.13

BioSTL's BioGenerator organization is on the move as its entrepreneurs-in-residence find a new home in 4,300 square feet of office and conference space in an old automobile factory. The blossoming program, which helps BioGenerator's portfolio companies to get off the ground, continues to pay dividends within the growing biotech community.

Ambassadors aim to soften rough landing for St. Louis immigrants

In InnovationSTL

6:34 am on Fri, 11.08.13

The St. Louis Mosaic Project is set to hold an orientation for its new ambassadors -- dozens of foreign and native-born volunteers who aim to help make the community a more welcoming place for those from other nations. Participants will be expected to do everything from visiting local restaurants serving international cuisine to having dinner with an immigrant to the area.

Recent Articles

More Articles

Innovation and entrepreneurial activity are on the rise in St. Louis, especially in bioscience, technology and alternative energy. The Beacon's InnovationSTL section focuses on the people who are part of this wave, what they're doing and how this is shaping our future. To many St. Louisans, this wave is not yet visible. InnovationSTL aims to change that. We welcome you to share your knowledge, learn more about this vibrant trend and discuss its impact.

Featured Articles

Regina Carter brings jazz and therapy to Children's Hospital

6:36 am on Mon, 12.09.13

One night, the violinist is taking bows before a standing ovation at Jazz at the Bistro. The next afternoon, some of her audience may have trouble standing, but the kids in the playroom at Children's Hospital were no less appreciative. “Jazz is medicine personified," according to a doctor who brings in the jazz musicians.

Featured Articles

Featured Events:

More About The Beacon Home