Presidential Clemency: Pardons, Commutations, and Reprieves

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The United States Constitution gives the President of the United States the power of executive clemency, which includes the ability to pardon a person convicted of a federal offense. (Article II, Section 2.) State governors have the power to pardon state convictions.

A presidential pardon is a sign of forgiveness—in fact, if you protest your innocence, you’re not likely to get a pardon. It is not a vindication and it does not erase or expunge the record of conviction. When you ask for a pardon, you are basically asking for the return of your “good name,” and towards that end, you must convince the president that you have led a law-abiding, moral, and responsible life since the time of your conviction. People who are pardoned regain the rights of a citizen, such as the right to vote and serve on a jury.

Commutation, Remission, and Reprieve

The president may also grant clemency in the form of a commutation of sentence, remission of a fine or restitution, and a reprieve.

Commutation. The president may substitute a less severe punishment in place of the punishment originally imposed. A sentence may be commuted when facts become known that were not known at the time of sentencing, or that came to light and were developed after. Commutation is rarely granted but can occur in cases of old age, illness, and when the sentence is unusually harsh compared with similar cases. When a sentence is commuted, the recipient doesn’t get back the rights of a citizen (only a subsequent pardon can do that, which sometimes happens).

Remission. This type of clemency involves relief from a forfeiture, penalty, or restitution order.

Reprieve. This is the temporary postponing of a criminal sentence, particularly a death sentence.

Qualifying for a Pardon

To be eligible for consideration of a pardon, you must:

  • be convicted of a federal, not a state, offense
  • wait five years from the date of your release from custody or, if you were not incarcerated, five years from the date of conviction
  • be willing to answer lots of questions about your activities since the conviction, including your credit status, civil lawsuits, and any subsequent brushes with the criminal law, and
  • have at least three character references willing to sign an affidavit (a statement signed under oath) attesting to your good character.

Certificates of Pardon for Vietnam-era Selective Service Act Violations

In 1977, President Carter issued a proclamation that pardoned certain persons who, during the Vietnam War era, broke the Military Selective Service Act by evading the draft or other acts. Those who believe that their convictions were covered by the proclamation can obtain an individual certificate of pardon. You’ll need to provide documentation and submit an application.

Applying for a Pardon or Commutation

The United States Department of Justice maintains the Office of the Pardon Attorney, who reviews petitions for executive clemency and makes recommendations to the president. On the Pardon Attorney’s website, you’ll find a lot of helpful information, including application forms for commutations, pardons, and pardons for Vietnam-era Selective Service Act violations.

Getting Legal Help

The applications you’ll need to fill out are not particularly long or difficult to understand, but you may benefit from the help of an attorney who is experienced in these matters. It may be difficult for you to know what facts are supportive, and how to present them. An attorney may be particularly helpful in developing an argument for commutation based on your having received a disparate sentence.

Famous Presidential Pardons and Commutations

Here’s a sampling of presidential pardon recipients. As you will see, innocence was hardly the issue.

Certain citizens of the Territory of Utah. This was a band of Mormons, led by Governor Brigham Young, who massacred a civilian wagon train headed for California. The Mormons were in the middle of a stand-off with federal troops over control of the Territory. They were pardoned by President Buchanan in 1858, after agreeing to submit to United States’ law.

Oscar Collazo. He tried to assassinate President Harry Truman, who commuted his sentence in 1952 from death to life in prison; in 1979, President Carter pardoned and freed Collazo.

Jimmy Hoffa. The former Teamsters union leader was convicted of mail fraud and jury tampering, receiving a 13-year sentence. Richard Nixon commuted his sentence after he had served almost 5 years, then Hoffa disappeared and is presumed dead.

Richard Nixon. He was the president of the United States, who resigned in disgrace after being charged with misusing his presidential powers. He faced almost certain criminal charges; his Vice President and now-President Gerald Ford pardoned him.

Marc Rich. He was an international commodities trader and entrepreneur, who was indicted in 1983 on federal charges of tax evasion and making oil deals with Iran during the hostage crisis of 1971-1981. He was in Switzerland when the indictment was handed down, and did not return to the U.S. President Clinton pardoned him in 2001, just hours before leaving office, claiming that the events that formed the basis for the indictment were better handled in civil suits, not as criminal charges. Some believe that the pardon was bought, as Rich was a strong financial supporter of Israel.

I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. The Chief of Staff to the Vice President of the United States was indicted for his actions during the investigation of the “outing” of Valerie Plame, a CIA officer. A federal jury found him guilty of obstructing justice, perjury, and making false statements. After his appeal was turned down, President George W. Bush commuted the entirety of his 30-month sentence. 

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