Skip navigation

End of Gubernatorial Terms Bring Pardons, Commutations

by David M. Reutter

Following the 2018 elections, outgoing governors in at least 10 states and others who remained in office resolved some outstanding clemency applications by issuing pardons and commutations.

In January 2019, then-Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner – who lost his 2018 re-election bid to J.B. Pritzker – granted 30 clemency requests on his final full day in office. Of those clemencies, 15 went to Cook County prisoners, including two commutations for convicted murderers. 

A pair of life sentences imposed on Oscar Parham for a double murder committed in 1988 during a botched drug deal were commuted to a 70-year term by Rauner. The governor also ordered the 58-year and 17-year sentences imposed on Jonathan Morgan for 1995 murder and second-degree murder convictions to run concurrently rather than consecutively. Other commutations were granted to two men convicted in separate armed robbery cases.

Outgoing Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, who was term-limited, granted six commutations, 15 pardons and one exoneration before he left office. Most noteworthy was a commutation granted to Cyntoia Brown, 30. She had been convicted of the first-degree murder and aggravated robbery of Johnny Allen, who took Brown to his home when she was working as a juvenile prostitute. While in his bed, she shot him in the head then stole items from his house. Haslam commuted Brown’s sentence following an advocacy campaign for her release that painted her as a trafficking victim and vilified Allen.

Governor Haslam also ended the lifetime parole supervision of Janet Edmond Kostyal and Nicky J. Randolph, who were convicted in separate first-degree murder cases in 1974 and 1985, respectively. Michelle Lea Martin’s sentence for the 2001 second-degree murder of her father was commuted to supervised parole. The other grants of clemency went to people convicted of drug, burglary, fraud, assault, larceny and DUI offenses.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who was also term-limited, granted 35 pardons and commuted 26 sentences before leaving office in January 2019. The commutations included three murder convictions. The state parole commission will now decide whether to release those three prisoners, Melissa Chapman, Patricia Trevino and Demetrius Favors. Chapman and Trevino have served 30 years while Favors, 72, has served 51 years. Snyder said he “took great time and care” in making the clemency decisions, one of which was to commute the five-year sentence of a former 400-game winning high school basketball coach, John Topie, who demanded fentanyl during an armed robbery of a pharmacy.

Outgoing Maine Governor Paul LePage issued a pardon to former state Rep. Jeffrey Pierce, who was being investigated for hunting illegally with firearms. Pierce had been convicted in 1983 of selling marijuana and cocaine to an undercover police officer. LePage’s pardon ends the investigation into Pierce, who was among a core group of the governor’s supporters.

Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who is now a 2020 presidential candidate, granted one pardon and commuted six other sentences before leaving office. The conditional pardon was issued to Promise Y. Lee, who pleaded guilty in 1975 to the second-degree murder of a Fort Carson soldier that Lee committed when he was 15. Hickenlooper also shortened the sentences of six prisoners who will now be eligible for parole between 2020 and 2039.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee, another 2020 presidential candidate, may set a trend with his offer of pardons to citizens who were convicted of misdemeanor marijuana possession. Announced in January 2019, his “Marijuana Justice Initiative” offers pardons to up to 3,500 people who were convicted of a single misdemeanor for marijuana possession between January 1, 1998 and December 5, 2012, after which recreational use of the drug was legalized.

“We shouldn’t be punishing people for something that is no longer illegal in Washington state,” Inslee said. “Forgiving these convictions will allow people to move on with their lives. This is a small step, but one that moves us in the direction of correcting injustices that disproportionately affected communities of color.”

Two other pardons issued by Governor Inslee earlier in 2018 went to a pair of Cambodian refugees targeted for deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), for decades-old crimes they committed as teenagers. The Khmer Vulnerability Aid Organization, a nonprofit that works with deportees to help with their resettlement, said that under President Trump, the number of Cambodians deported has jumped from about 45 per year to 110 in 2018.

Soon after taking office in January 2019, incoming California Governor Gavin Newsom also pardoned two Cambodian refugees slated for deportation by ICE for crimes they had committed as teenagers. The pardons by Newsom and Inslee were considered rebukes to stepped-up deportation efforts by the Trump administration.

The month before Newsom took office, outgoing California Governor Jerry Brown continued his tradition of granting clemency applications at Christmas, issuing 143 pardons and 131 commutations on Christmas Eve 2018, bringing his total to 283 commutations and 1,332 pardons since 2011 – the first year of his most recent term in office.

“Many people in today’s society do not believe in either forgiveness or redemption,” Brown said. “They believe that what you do is who you are. That philosophy is not something that I share. I don’t think it’s Christian ... and it does not comport with historical notions of justice.”

Brown also ordered DNA testing in the 35-year-old case of death row prisoner Kevin Cooper, who claims he was framed for the hatchet and knife killings of a husband and wife and their two children in 1983. Coincidentally, that was the same year Brown completed his first two terms as California’s governor. Newsom ordered additional DNA testing in Cooper’s case in February 2019.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo pardoned 22 people and commuted the sentences of seven others, reserving most of his clemency grants for those facing deportation as a result of criminal convictions. The governor’s office said the pardons went to people who demonstrated rehabilitation and had committed no new crimes, while the commutations went to prisoners who pursued educational opportunities and worked to help fellow prisoners.

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson granted 14 pardons and one restoration of firearm rights before he left office, while Texas Governor Greg Abbott granted six pardons. Both are still in office.

Georgia is one of 14 states whose governor does not make pardon decisions, instead vesting that authority in a five-member board whose members are appointed. The Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles is one of just six state boards that operate independently from the governor.

In Georgia, applicants must wait five years after completing their sentences before seeking a pardon, and pay all outstanding fines and restitution. While a pardon does not expunge a criminal record, it removes “legal disability” by restoring the former prisoner’s civil rights and is usually helpful in overcoming bias when seeking employment or housing.

Margaret Love, a practicing lawyer and former U.S. Pardon Attorney, said that when a pardon board operates independently, as in Georgia, it “is more conducive to a state that gives a lot of grants.” Over a five-year period beginning in 2013, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles granted 3,449 of 4,379 completed pardon applications. Another 3,095 applications were deemed incomplete and rejected.

However, during that same period the annual number of approved applications has plummeted, from 1,177 to just 152 in 2018, as the state’s district attorneys have clamored for more transparency in the board’s decisions, which are reached by closed ballot in private sessions.

“The more the board gets scrutinized, the more conservative they get,” said Georgia Justice Project (GJP) executive director Doug Ammar. “Their decisions are being micromanaged and they’re going to be more cautious about the decisions they make.”

New rules adopted in 2015 require the board to notify victims of violent crimes 30 days before considering a pardon. There is also now a separate application for sex offenders. Even prisoners’ attorneys are frustrated with the opaqueness of the process.

“They say you can reapply in two years, but I don’t know why the application was denied,” said GJP legal director Brenda Smeeton. “I don’t know how to tell my clients what they can do to improve [their chances] next time.”

Board chairman Terry Barnard said the application process has become “more burdensome on the applicant,” but offered no other explanation for the drop in pardons, pointing to guidelines that say the board looks for evidence of a stable life.

“It’s important for us to know the reputation an applicant has built for themselves in the community,” Barnard stated. “We want to know how long they’ve lived in a community and whether they’ve kept a job. If I see they’ve lived in the same place for five years, 10 years, 15 years, that immediately says to me that a person is embedded in their community, they are stable and they’re on their feet.”

Board spokesman Steve Hayes confirmed that registered victims are now contacted for every pardon application.

On the federal level, President Trump has issued 14 pardons and commutations during his term in office, include a pardon for Joe Arpaio, the disgraced former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, convicted of contempt of court for ignoring a federal judge’s directive to stop racial profiling. [See: PLN, Nov. 2017, p.42]. Trump has also pardoned media mogul Conrad Black; Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney; First Lt. Michael Behenna, court-martialed for murdering an Iraqi citizen; former boxer Jack Johnson, convicted of violating the Mann Act in 1913 (posthumously); right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza, convicted of campaign finance violations; and former California lawmaker Pat Nolan, who previously served as director of Prison Fellowship. 

---

Sources: usnews.com, tennessean.com, huffingtonpost.com, wivb.com, bostonglobe.com, nbcsandiego.com, thecalifornian.com, mlive.com, washingtonpost.com, kktv.com, thehill.com, news4sanantonio.com, magnoliareporter.com, gjp.org, ajc.com, thenewstribune.com, sacramento.cbslocal.com