Friday, November 23, 2018

Memories of Thanksgivings past: Clemency campaign collaborator ended his life after a terrible crime

Keri Blakinger has an awesome Twitter-thread about spending Thanksgiving in prison. Go read it. She's amazing.

This made me wonder, perhaps for the first time, whether I'd ever published Thanksgiving-themed commentary on Grits. Out of 9K+ posts, I found just two: One was an account of a Thanksgiving meal at a Texas youth prison in Giddings back in '07. The second, in 2011, was a complaint about President Barack Obama's then-chintzy clemency record (it improved dramatically in his second term), criticizing him for pardoning turkeys while quoting a writer, O. Henry, who probably deserved an innocence-based pardon (and certainly deserved one based on his rehabilitation and achievement in later life) for an alleged bank-fraud crime committed in Austin, Texas.

As it happened, an academic named Peter Ruckman, who ran a blog called Pardon Power and was one of a handful of national experts on both presidential and state-level clemency issues, also latched on to the President's O. Henry comments. Grits had been nagging then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry for years to improve his clemency record, so Ruckman and I had become online blog-friends (we never met in person), as he helped me understand how to parse clemency data I was getting in a jumbled mess from the Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Anyway, Prof. Ruckman and I launched a somewhat tongue-in-cheek campaign in 2011 to "Pardon O. Henry," chiding the President for quoting someone denied a pardon to celebrate pardoning turkeys. We created a website to gather petition signatures. I did a little research at the Austin History Center and the O. Henry museum here in town, reading tons of short stories and a half-dozen O. Henry biographies. And Ruckman created a formal posthumous pardon application, vigorously lobbying the Justice Department before it was was eventually denied. We had some fun with it; I learned a lot from the process, both about federal clemency procedures and a beloved American writer. Pete was easy to work with throughout, and a nice guy.

In his second term, Obama dramatically ramped up his use of clemency power, which ultimately was the desired result. But there's a melancholy note I never reported to readers who may remember this long-defunct campaign. Ruckman and I stayed minimally in touch, but I hadn't heard from him for a couple of years when news came this spring that the professor, having reportedly spent much time in a bitter marital breakup, murdered his two sons, 12 and 14, then committed suicide.

I've known this terrible news for several months, but hadn't written about it on the blog. What is there to say? It's about the most awful thing imaginable. However, reconsidering Thanksgivings past, as Keri inspired me to do, made me think of O. Henry, Prof. Ruckman, and his tragic story this afternoon, so I decided to pass it along. Now, Grits fears the president's dumb-ass turkey pardon will annually trigger memories of this macabre coda to what otherwise was a fun and educational little campaign we did together.

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