Thursday, January 22, 2009

What to make of last-minute Bush clemencies?

Quite a few of my favorite blogs are producing good commentary about President Bush's last-minute pardons of two Border Patrol agents convicted of shooting an unarmed drug smuggler in the back near the Mexican border in Texas' western federal district. See commentary from Jacob Sullum at Reason Hit and Run, Doc Berman at Sentencing Law & Policy, Paul Burka from Texas Monthly, Jeralyn at Talk Left, and P.S. Ruckman at Pardon Power.

In the comments over at Paul Burka's shop, I offered my own view on the sentence commutations:

1) The BP agents committed a crime, covered it up, and deserved to be punished.

2) Their sentences were too long because of federal mandatory minimums sweepingly applied in an utterly undiscriminating fashion.

3) Therefore the commutations were justified based on the specifics of the cases, but

4) There are many, many thousands of similarly situated offenders who also received excessive, unfair prison terms under federal sentencing guidelines, so

5) It’s hypocritical to pick out two defendants whose commutations pander to Lou Dobbs and the right wing base while not applying the same principles of justice to others who are subject to indefensibly long mandatory minimums.

What's your opinion about the President's final act of clemency?


Anonymous said...

My opinion is that I'm surprised that he didn't issue more pardons, particularly of Scooter Libby (sorry about the link to Fox News). I think this is probably consistent with Bush's "hard on crime, soft on law enforcement officials" policy. If there's one thing you can say about the guy, it's that he's consistent.

Don Dickson said...

I can't make this comment about Dubya personally, because it seems to apply to virtually every President. But with every quadrennial wave of pardons and clemencies I'm always left scratching my head and saying "why them?" And why not so many others whose punishments are so severe, or have already lasted so long, and whose guilt, (or for that matter, the manner in which it was adjudicated), has become a matter of such reasonable doubts in so many reasonable minds?

Like virtually every thing else pertaining to the federal government, the question seems to turn increasingly upon who you know, and how much you can pay.

Hugh McBryde said...

I think it's far more significant who he did not pardon. If you wish to find justice in a pardon you might as well ask what sort of screwy religion Christianity is, since it is based on unmerited pardon (grace).

Don said...

Not to put too fine a point on it, because I know most of you know there is a vast difference between a pardon and having a sentence commuted. But people continue to refer to this as pardons. The agents wives have vowed to continue this fight, and they want to clear their husbands names. I think they want to go for a pardon and expunction. A commutation leaves them as convicted felons. Which is probably the way it should be. They committed a crime and tried to cover it up. And as Scott and Don Dickson pointed out, why them and not thousands of others who have sentences over the top?

Anonymous said...

Police should face twice the manditory min. of a private citizen esp. if its violent with an attempted cover up. They are tusted with guns and the benefit of the doubt so when they break that trust they should pay a greater price. Honest cops would support this idea if there were any. The public has no good reason to trust the police and its a sad consequence of the war on drugs . Bush is an idiot.

Anonymous said...

Charles from Tulia says:

This slipped past me in the news. I didn't know about this until Grits informed me. It seems it was a commutation rather than a pardon. (Grits has used both terms.) I'm glad Don at 8:39 has pointed out the difference. Pardon says they were innocent. Commutation says they've served enough time. I'm glad he didn't pardon them outright.

Anonymous said...

your list of 5 things about the pardon of the BP agents hits the larger issue right on the head. We had hoped the Booker case would bring more discretion to federal sentencing, but judges still adhere rigidly to the guidelines. I guess no one wants to be "the first" to hand down a reasonable sentence.

Anonymous said...

No elected or appointed official is going to risk their position, and paycheck over equal and thoughtful treatment of people on an individual basis.

When a crime is committed. From stealing candy to murder, immediately the 'people' raise up and condemn the individual while placing broad 'blanket' laws over anyone remotely close to the same crime as what was originally committed.

We do this today with Drug offenders, sex offenders, DWI offenders. Our perception is that if we place this incredibly heinous law over their heads, then no one else will do it. Well guess what folks, people are either inherently stupid, they just don't care, or are totally mis-informed.

Take this case of the time served release. One can argue that this is similar to allowing a sex offender early parole. The victims did not see justice done. To two things here. First, how is the continued punishment helping or hurting the offenders? victims? How does the re-integration of the offender allow for healing? for hurting?

These are the question that no one looks at from a real perspective. Does it actually 'harm' the victim by allowing the offender back into society? I say no, it does not. it harms none of the parties involved. What it does do, it allows the person, or persons to go back out into society and maybe give something good back into it. It allows that person's family to have a normal family unit, and kids that will be with their father/mother instead of talking to them through shatter-proof glass.

back to the subject at hand. I believe Bush had a more simple objective in mind. He is back in Texas (don't get me started), he is from Texas, and probably just wanted a couple of Texas' good ole' boys to be back o the streets.

Anonymous said...


I agree with all of your points except for point #5.

Most of the news reports and commentary like from Doc Berman report there was a bipartanship effort on behalf of the two agents.

Nearly the entire bipartisan congressional delegation from Texas and other lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle pleaded with Bush to grant them clemency.

To the thousands of similarly situated offenders who also received excessive, unfair prison terms under federal sentencing guidelines, I say to them to organize like the wives of these two agents did and call attention to their cases.

Anonymous said...

To Kyle at 8:07 "I think this is probably consistent with Bush's "hard on crime, soft on law enforcement officials" policy."

When you make this statement surely you don't use the case of Border Patrol agent David Sipe or you just spouting off with no data to support your claim?

Anonymous said...

If I remember correctly, they shot him in the butt, not the back.

Anonymous said...


Get over it! He's gone now. Big O is going to make everything all better.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 1:29, "in the back" is used to imply he was shot from behind, so being shot in the behind doesn't change that he was shot "in the back".

Don Dickson said...

Last I looked, that's where my butt is. :-)