Although Martinez was found not guilty, the specter of that murder charge hung over his clemency case. But it didn’t sideline it. Cynthia Roseberry, now the executive director of the Council for Court Excellence, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal-justice reform in Washington, D.C., was the project manager for the Clemency Project 2014. When Martinez’s application reached her desk, she asked for chapter and verse on the murder. She could have disqualified him, but she was actively trying to get people out of prison, not find reasons to keep them in. Believing Martinez’s account, she forwarded his petition to Obama’s pardon attorney, who later recommended it to the president.
Under an administration that supports stricter punishment, especially mandatory minimums, Martinez’s case could have fallen apart at multiple junctures—if it was considered at all. In August 2016, the Obama administration announced Martinez had been granted clemency, and by mid-September, he left prison.
Roseberry told me she still tries to stay upbeat about the prospects for clemency under Trump, citing her conservative friends who favor clemency because “they think it’s morally right.” She even saw reason for hope in Arpaio’s pardon, which followed a long, bipartisan tradition of presidents using that power to help political associates. To Roseberry, the Arpaio pardon “shows the president is thinking about it.”
Some of her fellow advocates take a dimmer view. Nkechi Taifa, the advocacy director for criminal justice at the Open Society Foundations in Washington, laughed when I asked her about the administration’s view on clemency. “Clemency for who? Deserving people who were sentenced disproportionately under outdated guidelines? I don’t think so,” she said. “That’s all about mercy, you know, and I don’t see much mercy in Donald Trump, or Jeff Sessions.”
The Obama administration’s clemency program had its flaws. Though the initiative’s launch in 2014 was seen as a victory, advocates felt let down by the administration’s methods. Osler and Taifa, who for years had lobbied the administration, wanted to model the program on what the Ford administration did after the war in Vietnam. In 1974, President Gerald Ford convened an independent, bipartisan board that cleared over 20,000 applications and granted pardons to more than 14,000 draft dodgers in less than a year.
“If we’d gone that route, things would have been way different,” Taifa told me. “We’d have had a body of experts devoted to the task at hand. Instead, we had a bureaucracy—well-meaning, most of them—but it took time to initiate the process, time to get it up to speed, and that was all time that could have been spent moving applications. In the end it was an admirable effort, but not nearly what it could have been.”
More times than Martinez cares to remember during his quarter-century-plus behind bars, he awakened from a dream of the real world to find himself in prison. Since his release he’s had the opposite experience, waking up in a panic thinking he’s back in prison and clemency was just a dream. He told me he often wonders what the dreams of those more than 10,000 petitioners who never got an answer are like. “In a way, it might have been better for them if that possibility never existed,” he told me. “You know, you tell yourself, ‘If it happens, it happens’ and you just keep on doing your time. But it does get into your head.”