Saturday, January 14, 2012

Catch and Release: a Mississippi governor now on trial in the court of public opinion

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour is “comfortable” with his decision to pardon so many convicts on his way out of office, a decision that sparked an outcry recently when it was discovered that among these 215 pardons, some were convicted murderers.  Four of these convicted murderers were apparently trustees who worked in the Governor’s Mansion.  Gov. Barbour had stated in an earlier interview that it was a Mississippi “tradition” for governors to pardon trustees who worked in the Governor’s Mansion (he did not say if this tradition included convicted murderers).

The governor also stated of these 215 granted clemency, 189 were already released from prison.  He apparently pardoned them after the fact in one sweeping motion.

Being an Arkansas resident, I am hardly qualified to speak to Mississippi politics.  What I have always understood as it pertains to presidential or gubernatorial pardons, however, is that these pardons usually involve not personal preference or “Christian forgiveness”, as stated by the Mississippi governor, but by an element of doubt that may exist in a particular case.  Thus it is not supposed to be an arbitrary decision based on personal favor but a judicial one.  Just as a jury is charged with determining guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” based on evidence presented in court, so must a governor or president review trial records and court transcripts to ensure that one who is fairly convicted of murder serves her or his full term as required by a court of law.  It is a judge’s or a jury’s responsibility to mete out jail terms.  A governor or president should be able to prove (or be reasonably certain of) doubt as to guilt or innocence based only on evidence presented, not gut feelings.

Governors and presidents have lived to regret certain decisions made while in office, and pardons must surely be among these decisions.  Arkansas’ former governor Mike Huckabee pardoned a convict who was later convicted of murder.  Former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis paid a high political price in his run for president against George H. W. Bush for a pardon by his hand that went wrong.  Surely there have been others.

It is an awesome responsibility for a governor or president to wield such power over the life of another human being – including signing an order of execution – but that power must not be made independent of existing law.  It may be “traditional”, but so are drunken fraternity parties.  Tradition does not always mean “right” … or just.

Beyond this, however, is the governor’s use of Christian theology as a way of justifying his decisions.  By his reasoning, all who are convicted by a criminal court in Mississippi should then immediately be forgiven of their transgressions and sent on their way because “Mississippians are Christians and believe in second chances”.  Surely there are many others within the corrections system in that state who are genuinely sorry for what they’ve done.  Surely there are many within that system who really, really will not repeat their mistakes. 

Here’s the thing, though.  Simon Wiesenthal was a survivor of the Holocaust.  As he wrote in his compelling book, “The Sunflower”, Mr. Wiesenthal related an experience when he, as a slave worker of the Nazi regime, was taken to a wounded German soldier whose only desire before his imminent death was to apologize to a Jew, any Jew, for his part in the slaughter.  Mr. Wiesenthal wrote that he bolted from the room after hearing the soldier’s story of remorse – without forgiving him (he later came to believe the soldier’s remorse was genuine). 

In the book, however, Mr. Wiesenthal was debating whether he even had a right – on behalf of all Jews – to forgive this soldier for his act.  He had believed (as did many of his Jewish compatriots) only those Jews who had been directly harmed by this particular soldier had a right to forgive him for his part (and incidentally, the family this soldier was sorry for killing did not survive the encounter.  They were all burned alive in a building they had been shut into).

So what do we think?  Can the governor of a state, or the president for that matter, arbitrarily “forgive” a convicted murderer in the name of Christian forgiveness?  Can executive clemency be construed as Christian forgiveness?  Does an elected executive have the right to “forgive” a murder without serious judicial consideration and/or input from the victims’ families?  Even if the law allows him or her that privilege, does a governor possess that “right”?

No comments: