Page last updated at 14:56 GMT, Thursday, 27 November 2008

Dilemmas of US presidential pardons

By Jonathan Beale
BBC News, Washington

As is custom, President George W Bush pardoned a couple of turkeys on the eve of the Thanksgiving holiday.

President Bush with "Pumpkin" the turkey
Mr Bush pardoned two turkeys but is less lenient than his predecessors

"Pecan" and "Pumpkin" were rescued from the dinner table, but they are not the only ones looking for some leniency.

There is, after all, another tradition that presidents carry out when they are about to leave office: handing out presidential pardons and clemency to felons.

So the question now is who will be forgiven by President Bush? So far he has shown remarkable restraint in exercising this extraordinary priestly power.

At first the presidential pardon seems strange for a democracy and a proud republic - more like a divine right of kings.

But in Article 2 of the American Constitution the founding fathers gave the president the power to pardon in the interests of mending national wounds and to remedy injustice.

National healing

There are two kinds a president can offer. The first, clemency or a commutation - reducing an individual's prison sentence, and then a formal pardon - in essence an official statement of forgiveness for a crime.

With hindsight these difficult decisions are perhaps easier to understand

Perhaps the best example of healing national wounds came after the Civil War. President Andrew Johnson's decision to pardon Southerners in the Confederate States - on the condition that they would take an oath of loyalty to the Union.

One of President Jimmy Carter's first acts when he entered the White House in 1977 was to grant an unconditional pardon to those who dodged the draft in the Vietnam War.

Gerald Ford's pardon for Richard Nixon in the wake of the Watergate scandal proved more controversial - and possibly cost him re-election.

With hindsight these difficult decisions are perhaps easier to understand.

But pardons can also contribute to a bitter aftertaste when a president leaves office and the most controversial ones are often left to the last moment.

Professor Kermit Roosevelt of the University of Pennsylvania law school notes that presidents "tend to use pardons most at the end of their terms".

During his last week in the White House, President Bill Clinton outraged Democrats and Republicans alike when he pardoned his half-brother, Roger, and the fugitive Marc Rich.

Rich had been indicted for tax evasion and fraud. The pardon sparked an investigation into whether it was "bought" by hefty donations from Rich's wife to the Clintons and the Democratic party.

Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman called it a "bad precedent" - setting double standards for the wealthy and the powerful.

Fewest pardons

But it is not just Democrats. In 1992 the first President Bush granted pardons to six former Reagan administration officials including Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger.

He was due to go on trial for his alleged involvement in the Iran-Contra affair. He received the pardon just weeks before the trial was due to start.

John Walker Lindh
John Walker Lindh is among those hoping to have jail terms commuted

Professor Daniel Kobil of Capital University School of Law in Ohio says there is always the possibility of abuse, but in the minds of the founding fathers they were giving power to someone who has the confidence of the people.

President Bush has so far been careful not to abuse that trust.

During his eight-year presidency a record number of people have applied for pardons and sentence commutations, but he has issued fewer than any other president of the past 100 years - with the exception of his father.

He has granted a mere 171 pardons, while denying around 8,000 clemency requests.

In fact, Professor Daniel Kobil says President Bush has "trivialised the power into a virtual non-existence".

He says he has granted pardons in the most innocuous cases and it seems to be the only executive power he has refused to expand.

Difficult decisions

On Wednesday we got a taste of the kind of crimes this president is prepared to forgive and forget - he issued 14 pardons and commuted two prison sentences - cases of minor fraud, drug offences and over the killing an American bald eagle, a protected species.

But is he leaving the difficult decisions to his final few weeks?

Current high-profile appeals for clemency include the former Republican Congressman Randy Duke Cunningham, sentenced to eight years in prison for bribery and fraud; Conrad Black, the Canadian media mogul also convicted of fraud; the disgraced Olympic athlete Marion Jones, who committed perjury in the BALCO drug scandal; and Jose Compean and Ignacio Ramos - two former US Border Control agents who were convicted of shooting a fleeing Mexican drug dealer in 2005.

President Bush is likely to be less sympathetic to John Walker Lindh - the American Taleban, who has applied to have his 20-year sentence for conspiracy to murder US nationals commuted.

This, after all, is the president who launched a war against terrorism.

To date George Bush's most controversial pardon was to commute the sentence of Scooter Libby - Dick Cheney's former aide, who was convicted of perjury in the investigation into the leaking of the CIA agent Valery Plame.

In Washington there is also speculation as to whether President Bush could extend a pre-emptive pardon to those officials who carried out the harsh interrogation techniques on terrorist suspects.

But surely that would be seen as an admission of his own guilt in allowing torture.

President Bush is already leaving the White House under a cloud with the financial meltdown and two wars yet to be won.

Is he a man who can afford to leave with even more controversy?

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