Presidential pardons, commutations seem less about mercy than political tactics
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So Kim Kardashian sashays in to the Oval Office and pleads the case of Alice Marie Johnson, a black woman who’s been locked up for 21 years, and a week later President Donald Trump commutes her sentence.
And Sylvester Stallone puts a bug in the president’s ear about Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion. And then Trump grants the legendary fighter a posthumous pardon for bogus charges under the racially offensive Mann Act — a Jim Crow-era law, meant to prevent interracial relationships, that punished black men for taking white women across state lines for “immoral purposes.”
The celebrity-endorsed pardons of African-Americans are in addition to presidential pardons of high-profile prisoners convicted of crimes connected to politics: Dinesh D’Souza, who pleaded guilty to making an illegal campaign contribution in 2014, and Scooter Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice.
Trump also has floated the prospect of granting clemency to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who’s serving a 14-year term on a corruption conviction, and Martha Stewart, who served time for insider trading. Both were participants on “Celebrity Apprentice,” the TV show Trump hosted before becoming president.
Obviously, a pardon or a commutation of a prison sentence is good news for the families of the convicted, even when the act of clemency appears self-serving.
“I don’t care what his motives are,” said Linda Haywood, Jack Johnson’s great-great niece. “If he signs that piece of paper, that’s all right with me.”
Some might wonder whether Trump’s actions regarding Alice Marie Johnson and Jack Johnson were a strategic use of his clemency authority to show black folks he’s not so bad after all. And there has been speculation that the Libby and D’Souza pardons were intended to send a message to Trump supporters who are now under investigation that he might take similar actions on their behalf.
Given Trump’s devious nature, it’s difficult to accept that he does anything for the good of someone else.
More important, what do his actions say to ordinary citizens rotting away in the nation’s prisons under sentencing guidelines that are both unjust and disparate?
Do you have to be politically connected, or famous, or have a celebrity advocate to get a pardon or commutation under the Trump administration?
Clemency is about mercy.
And while Trump supporters are quick to point out that former President Barack Obama chose not to give Jack Johnson a posthumous pardon, let’s not forget that Obama issued more commutations than 13 prior presidents combined.
By the end of his presidency, Obama had used his constitutional power to show mercy to 1,927 prisoners. He commuted 504 life sentences and granted 212 pardons.
Most of the prisoners granted executive clemency had been convicted of drug charges.
Alton Mills, a Chicagoan, was sentenced to life in prison for a nonviolent drug offense in 1994 and spent 22 years in prison before Obama commuted his sentence.
Jesse Webster, also from Chicago, was among 61 nonviolent drug offenders whose lengthy sentences Obama commuted in 2016. Though it was Webster’s first conviction and he had no criminal record, he’d been sentenced to life without parole.
Kudos to Alice Marie Johnson’s daughter Tretessa Johnson for taking her appeal to Trump by circulating a petition on change.org.
“She has been in prison 21 years and will die there unless President Trump grants her clemency,” she wrote, adding that her mother’s case had “caught the attention of Kim Kardashian West.”
The petition garnered 271,226 supporters.
Kardashian is just one of the celebrities who have become advocates for reducing the incarceration population in the United States. John Legend, the singer, songwriter and film producer, said the scope of how “badly we lost” the “war on drugs” didn’t dawn on him until 2012, when he was executive producer of a documentary “The House I Live In.”
“The 46 people whose sentences the president [Obama] commuted…are just a drop in an ocean of lives that have been torn apart by the War on Drugs and the era of mass incarceration. It’s time to stop warring and start healing,” Legend wrote in an opinion piece for Time magazine in 2015.
If a photo op in the Oval Office is all it takes to get the job done, I hope other celebrities follow Kim Kardashian’s lead.
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Listen to the season 1 finale of the “Zebra Sisters” podcast cohosted by Mary Mitchell and Leslie Baldacci on race relations from the viewpoints of two women, one black and one white. And check out the entire first season on iTunes and Google Play Music — or find individual episodes on the Sun-Times’ Zebra Sisters page. Email Mary and Leslie at email@example.com or suggest topics for season 2 by calling the Zebra Hotline: (312) 321-3000, ext. ZBRA (9272).