Thanksgiving tradition dictates that the president of the United States accept a turkey from the National Turkey Federation, and that the president then pardons the bird.
Spared from the dinner table, the turkey goes to a safe home at Virginia Tech to live out its life under the care of the school’s Animal and Poultry Science Department. The turkey even gets veterinary care.
Around the end of the year and the end of their terms, presidents and governors also consider a long list of folks who want a real life pardon.
What is a Pardon?
Generally speaking pardons are the act of forgiving or being forgiven for an error or an offense.
The U.S. Constitution gives the President of the United States power to grant “reprieves and pardons” for offenses against the United States. Most states allow their governors to pardon those running afoul of state level wrongs.
Presidents can also commute sentences, essentially reducing them or imposing various conditions, but that’s a slightly different topic.
Usually there is a process involving an application, and there’s actually a pardon attorney in the executive branch to review pardons and advise the President. In the end granting pardons rest solely in the discretion of the President.
When President Barack Obama left office on January 20, 2017, he had granted only 212 pardons over the course of his 8 years in office. That, despite nearly 3,414 pardon applications submitted.
President Obama granted 1,715 commutations over the term of his presidency, more than any president in U.S. history, unless you count 13,000 draft dodgers and or deserters during the Vietnam War era granted clemency by president Gerald Ford.
In President Obama’s final week in office he commuted the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, the former U.S. Army intelligence analyst who had been sentenced to 35 years behind bars for handing over secret documents to notorious Wikileaks.
Some Famous Pardons
- In 1974 President Gerald Ford pardoned his predecessor, Richard M. Nixon for conduct surrounding the Watergate scandal even though Nixon had not been convicted or even charged with any specific crime. Nixon had resigned as the House Judiciary Committee drew up articles of impeachment.
- On January 20, 2001, the last day of his presidency, Bill Clinton pardoned 140 people, including FALN terrorists and billionaire contributor Marc Rich.
- Six Reagan administration officials accused and/or convicted in connection with the Iran-Contra matter were pardoned by President George H.W. Bush one month before the end of his term.
Justice Department guidelines require waiting five years after conviction or release to apply for a pardon. But the president can grant a pardon at any time. President Ford pardoned Nixon prior to formal criminal charges.
Governors and Pardons
Most governors also have pardon power.
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick took office in January, 2007 and never pardoned anyone until November, 2014, when he pardoned four people. One was a 43-year-old cancer survivor who served two years on a charge stemming from possession of a small bag of marijuana. The pardon cleared the man’s record allowing him to coach basketball.
Not as lucky as the Thanksgiving turkey, Pamela Smart has never been pardoned. She continues to serve a life sentence without parole for her role behind the murder of husband Greg Smart in Derry, NH. Repeated requests for a pardon found their way into the governor’s trash barrel. Governor Chris Sununu, considered a law and order supporter even if the youngest governor in the U.S., is highly doubtful to ever ink a pardon for Smart. Before him, Governor Maggie Hassan said “never” to a Smart pardon.
Pardons aren’t popular in New Hampshire. Governor John Sununu who served from 1983 through 1989 issued 17 pardons. But then, between 1990 and 2007, only three people were pardoned.
Pardons: The “Oops” Factor
Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in 1976 pardoned Edward Brown, convicted of assault with a dangerous weapon and armed robbery in connection with an attack on a man in Somerville. Brown moved to New Hampshire, where he and his wife refused to pay federal income taxes, failed to participate in their trial, and then, after conviction, staged a lengthy standoff with feds. The Browns now spend holidays in a federal penitentiary.
You can even be pardoned after you’re dead. President Clinton pardoned Henry O. Flipper 59 years after the former military officer’s death. Flipper was court marshaled for embezzlement of commissary funds.
Whether its a turkey or a person, pardons represent an end run around the system. The turkey’s life is spared the butcher’s axe. Political pardons operate outside of the usual channels of criminal justice either erasing a past conviction, or in some cases preventing prosecution.
Attorney Andrew D. Myers is a personal injury and bankruptcy attorney licensed in Massachusetts and New Hampshire who sometimes writes on other intriguing legal issues.