Today Grits is pleased to announce the launch of the pardonohenry.org website, the main function of which is to host an online petition asking President Barack Obama to grant a posthumous pardon to the great short story writer. Prof. P.S. Ruckman, who blogs at Pardon Power, is collaborating, taking the lead to prepare the application.
O. Henry, born William S. Porter, may or may not have committed the crime of embezzlement for which he was convicted in Austin in 1897. He claimed innocence throughout, but he also jumped bail and fled to Honduras, returning to face trial and imprisonment in order to care for his dying wife. In the end, his guilt or innocence probably doesn't matter. He produced among the best short stories in American literature, some while incarcerated. Here's the full text of the petition:
In this 150th year after William S. Porter's birth, I ask that you posthumously pardon him and in so doing honor this great American writer better known by his pen name: O. Henry.
O. Henry's works are among America's great contributions to English language literature, and he is widely credited with reinventing the short story. His writings were probably required reading at some point in your education. The nation's most prestigious short-story award is the PEN/O. Henry Prize. This year the US Postal Service will issue a stamp featuring his image. It's past time for the writer's recognition by the President as well in the form of a posthumous pardon.
Though you quoted O. Henry last year while pardoning a turkey, pardons are not mere jokes or symbols, nor should they be reserved for a turkey or two before Thanksgiving. They are a critical constitutional function that returns fairness and grace to a criminal justice system sorely short of those elements.
O. Henry always claimed innocence, but pardons are not just for the innocent. Alexander Hamilton in Federalist Paper 74 (1788) wrote that, "The criminal code of every country partakes so much of necessary severity, that without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel." As executive clemency has withered in use, America has seen the criminal justice system's cruel countenance blossom in full -- prisons overflowing with petty offenders, families broken, innocent people released after decades thanks to DNA tests that remain difficult to obtain.
Pardoning William S. Porter would signal that you understand and value the true purpose of executive clemency powers in the justice system -- not just as a symbol but also a remedy for both actual innocence and "unfortunate guilt," one that provides a healing salve even for century-old wounds.
Though as the petition says, it doesn't really matter, Grits is now fairly satisfied that William S. Porter was actually a victim of a false conviction lo these 115 years ago. The writer was depressed following the death of his wife and barely participated in his own defense, though he always insisted on his innocence. But the late Texas Third Court of Appeals Justice Trueman O'Quinn, an avid fan and collector of all things O. Henry, also believed Porter innocent and spent years unsuccessfully seeking his posthumous pardon. (After that, it should be mentioned, the now-departed curator at the O. Henry Museum in Austin filed another application during the George W. Bush Administration.) In a chapter O'Quinn authored in a book about the writer, Time to Write, he recorded that the prosecutor in Porter's case, Duval West (who went on to be appointed a federal judge in the Western District of Texas by Woodrow Wilson), years later 'told a reporter that he believed Will Porter was the victim of the banking practices of the day and innocent of intentional misappropriation of funds.'"
- Why a Pardon O. Henry! campaign?
- President should pardon O. Henry as postal service profits from him
- Children attend schools named after unpardoned felon since 1902
- Is it possible O. Henry was actually innocent?
- 'Criminous Nonsense from O. Henry'
- O. Henry on O. Henry: The author's only interview, 1909
- 'Work a little history into your travels on the Lone Star literary tour'
- Exhibit: 'O. Henry: A Short Story'
- Pardon me, Louisiana: Bobby Jindal's chincy clemency record
Innocent or not, "Why do this?," I'm inevitably asked. This project serves numerous goals for Grits. First and foremost, it amuses me, which some days is all it takes. Second, it highlights a bipartisan consensus among politicos and the media that has diminished clemency in recent decades, a trend which, in this age of mass incarceration, to me is the opposite of what's needed. And third, it honors and celebrates a legendary Texan writer and publisher whose Austin weekly, The Rolling Stone (no, not that one, Porter beat 'em to it), was the direct heir to William Brann's Iconoclast, a Texas journalism legend and the state's first, no-holds barred muckraking publication (Porter launched his magazine by buying out Brann at a low point for $250). At its zenith, Porter's Rolling Stone supposedly had 1,000 subscribers at a time when Austin had 11,000 residents, even if it always seemed to teeter on the brink of bankruptcy.
But there's one other, more fundamental reason for launching this project at this particular point in time: Grits should announce that just this week papers were filed to create the "Grits for Breakfast Action Fund," a Texas nonprofit for which we intend to seek 501c(4) status. (That means soon, but not quite yet, Paypal donations won't deduct sales tax: Will notify folks when; many have asked.) My hope is that this entity will become a vehicle to influence policy and legislation here in Texas, and aim to build up web organizing infrastructure headed into the session toward that end. The Pardon O. Henry! campaign provides an opportunity to get some of these e-activism tools set up and take them out for a test run on a project with bit more of a leisurely pace than anything that occurs at the Texas Legislature.
To summarize, this project was designed to be fun, to address a serious subject in (one hopes) a creative way, and to pay homage to my own roots as a Texan writer. But it also aims to lay the groundwork for future web activism promoting a wider array of criminal justice reforms. So go sign the petition, poke around the site, tell your friends, and help promote a national discussion on the decline of clemency and the resulting redaction of mercy from the American criminal justice system. And for heaven's sake smile while you're doing it, as though you've just savored one those classic, O. Henry twist endings.
MORE: See a press release announcing the petition drive.