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Out-going Kentucky Governor Issues 101 Pardons, Commutations

In December 2007, during his last hours in office, out-going Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher made state history by issuing 101 sentence commutations or pardons. While some of those acts of executive clemency appear to be meritorious, others smack of cronyism.

One of Fletcher’s commutations converted Jeffrey Devan Leonard’s death sentence to life without parole. Leonard was convicted for the 1983 murder of a store clerk. His case sparked controversy because his trial lawyer, Fred Ra-dolovich, was indicted on perjury charges for falsely claiming he had prior experience in four death penalty cases.

Radolovich actually had no experience as the lead attorney in a capital case, and his representation of Leonard was grossly deficient; he admitted he did not even know his client’s name during the trial.
Prosecutors dropped the per-jury charge in exchange for Radolovich’s law license. Leonard’s appeals were fully exhausted and he was awaiting an execution date at the time his sentence was commuted. Fletcher’s general counsel, David Fleenor, said “we’re not go-ing to execute somebody who clearly was denied a basic right.”

Nine Kentucky lawmakers wrote letters supporting the pardon application of Burgess Harrison Yonts, son of state Rep. Brent Yonts, who was convicted of murder in 2007 for his role in a hit-and-run car accident that killed a Murray State University student. Fletcher reduced Yonts’ twenty-year sentence to 8 years.

In a similar case, Fletcher reduced the 20-year sentence of Devon Brown to time served. Brown was convicted of wanton murder after he ran a red light, killing a woman and her 15-year-old daughter in 2002. He was 19 at the time and was not intoxicated, on drugs or excessively speeding; he said he thought the light was going to turn green as he ap-proached the intersection. Fleenor explained that Brown’s 20-year sentence “seemed entirely excessive.” Cases that were similar to Brown and Yonts’ had resulted in sentences of less than 10 years.

Among the 93 pardons granted by the out-going governor, nine went to women who sustained years of domestic violence before killing or trying to kill the men who had abused them.

State prosecutors were upset at Fletcher’s actions, claiming his commutations and pardons undermined the legal sys-tem. “I think it’s a disgrace; it’s shameful,” said Fayette County Commonwealth Attorney Ray Carson. “Why do you go through the process [of a trial]?” Larry Cleveland, Attorney for Franklin County Commonwealth, termed Fletcher’s pardon of Jayma Leigh Hawkins – who was convicted of murder, served her sentence and had been released for several years – “an insult.”

“The ultimate purpose of the pardon power is to grant mercy and ensure justice in exceptional circumstances,” Fletcher said in a statement. “It is also an integral part of the rule of law and the doctrine of separation of powers.”

Fletcher further pardoned Morgan County Judge-Executive Timothy Conley, a fellow Republican who had been indicted (but not convicted) on three counts of violating the public trust, and Monroe County Judge-Executive Mitchell Page and former County Clerk Carry Pitcock, who had been sentenced to 18 months in 1996 for failing to pay taxes.

Fletcher’s last-minute pardons and commutations were the most of any governor since 1974, when Gov. Wendell Ford issued 24. Fletcher’s predecessor, Gov. Paul Patton, granted no pardons when he left office.
During his eight-year tenure, however, Patton had pardoned his chief of staff and three others charged with campaign-finance crimes stemming from his 1995 election.

Like governors before him, some of Fletcher’s pardons were acts of mercy while others were displays of favorit-ism. Some were apparently to protect his own interests. In 2005, Fletcher pardoned nine state officials who had been charged in an investigation into the state’s personnel merit system and hiring practices; he also gave blanket par-dons to all other state employees who would have faced related charges.

One notable person Fletcher did not pardon was himself, after he was indicted in May 2006 on misdemeanor counts of conspiracy, official misconduct and discrimination in connection with the state hiring investigation. The charges were later dismissed by the Attorney General’s office as part of a deal in which Fletcher acknowledged wrongdoing by his ad-ministration and agreed to make changes.

Sources: The Courier-Journal, Tribune Business News

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