Pardons And Priorities

by Conor Friedersdorf

One of the most damning character indictments of recent presidents is the cowardly, borderline corrupt way they've misused the pardon power. Many people desserving an executive reprieve are left to rot in prison. And the odds of being shown mercy is incalculably higher if you happen to be a personal, political or ideological ally of the president, as evidenced by the records of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.

President Obama has so far been a failure too. Though he has avoided cronyism, his first nine pardons were granted to people who either finished serving their time long ago or never went to jail at all. But I don't know that I've ever seen a more perfect illustration of misplaced priorities than what appears in this story from The Land Of Enchantment:

Nearly 130 years after the death of Henry McCarty, alias William Bonney, but better known as Billy the Kid, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will take some of the final hours of his administration to decide whether to pardon the baby-faced gunslinger.

Richardson will review evidence that in 1881, one of his predecessors promised to pardon Bonney for killing a sheriff in return for his testimony in a murder case. The record suggests that New Mexico territorial Gov. Lew Wallace later reneged on that promise.

Richardson has promised a decision by Dec. 31, his final day in office.

If I knew nothing about how governors actually behaved at the ends of their terms, I'd imagine them frantically trying to determine the identities of the inevitable innocents incarcerated in their states. Or perhaps showing mercy to people imprisoned for years on end despite only having violated drug possession laws.

In fairness, it is conceivable to me that a governor might have a principled objection to interfering in the criminal justice system. I'd find that misguided – pardons are a check built into the system itself – but I'd at least comprehend the mindset. What I cannot fathom is how a governor who apparently accepts that pardons are sometimes appropriate could be so frivolous and lacking in judgment to spend the last hours of his administration wringing his hands over a long dead man whose guilt isn't in question.