< Beg Your Pardon?

Transcript

Friday, December 19, 2008

BOB GARFIELD:
This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And I'm Brooke Gladstone. It’s that time of year again – the season of the presidential pardon. As time runs out for the Bush Administration, the press and the public await word on who will win a get-out-of-jail-free card from the president.

Nothing, I mean, nothing says absolute power like the presidential pardon. No Congressional override, no amount of media scrutiny, no public outcry can undo this one truly discretionary decision of the president.

It might be why pardons still bother the public – and fascinate the press.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:
We know Alaska Senator Ted Stevens has not asked for one, but there are some other big names out there, including Duke Cunningham -
MALE CORRESPONDENT:
Junk-bond king Michael Milken, media mogul Conrad Black, American-born Taliban soldier John Walker Lindh – remember him?
MALE CORRESPONDENT:
President Carter gave one to Vietnam draft dodgers. President Jackson gave one to the Confederacy. President Washington gave one to the fighters in the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
P.S. Ruckman, Jr. is editor of the PardonPower blog and author of the forthcoming book, Pardon Me, Mr. President: Adventures in Crime, Politics and Mercy. He says that since the drafting of the Constitution, the pardon has been much used and little understood.
P.S. RUCKMAN:
There’s a formal process where you send an application to the Department of Justice which forwards it to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, who works with the FBI, to look at character references, to check criminal records and that type of thing. And then a recommendation is made to the deputy attorney general, who then makes a recommendation to the president.

But all of that can be bypassed by talking directly to the president, the president’s wife, or best friend of a president, or maybe someone at a cocktail party who has access to the president.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Now, there have been some notorious pardons, right? – Mafiosi, mass murderers, coconspirators in the Lincoln assassination. Can you go through a few?
P.S. RUCKMAN:
Sure. The gentleman who hatched the plot from the back of Ford Theater, the gentleman who held the door open for John Wilkes Booth to escape, and the doctor who said John Wilkes Booth’s leg once he traveled down the road, all of them were recipients of federal [LAUGHS] executive clemency.

In modern times, Oscar Collazo, who attempted to assassinate Harry Truman, and almost succeeded, his sentence was commuted by Truman. He was sentenced to death originally. And then Jimmy Carter commuted it again, so he was set free.

But, yes, mass murderers, axe murderers, vampires, you name it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
[LAUGHS] Vampires?
P.S. RUCKMAN:
The list is – [BROOKE LAUGHS] – oh, yeah. [LAUGHS] Ulysses Grant* pardoned a Portuguese sailor who was found in the hull of a ship sucking blood out of lifeless bodies. And he was sentenced to be executed. Maybe people were curious just to see if he could be executed. [LAUGHS] Grant* commuted the sentence to life in prison, and the gentleman went on to kill a few more people when he was in prison, so it wasn't a very good P.R. kind of pardon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Is there some general reason why these guys were let off?
P.S. RUCKMAN:
No, it’s just a fascinating tale [LAUGHS], I would say, behind each and every story. I think of Lupo the Wolf, or Ignazio Saietta, who was in New York City and linked to the so-called “murder stable” where 60 people were, one at a time, tortured and murdered. How a person like that could be the recipient of any form of executive clemency is just mind-boggling [LAUGHS], but he was. And there’s a very intricate story behind it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
The reason why we want to hear about pardons, I assume, is because they capture the public imagination in some way.
P.S. RUCKMAN:
Yeah, I think so. I think acts of mercy in general have, you know, a fascinating quality about them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
The power of life and death in one person’s hands, it’s more suggestive of the divine right of kings than of the democratic rule of law. And I know that Thurgood Marshall wrote a famous dissent about the whole pardon process.
P.S. RUCKMAN:
Yes, he did. He takes a view which is that the Supreme Court has misinterpreted the power and made it equal to if not greater than that of the King of England. And what Marshall argued in his dissent – and, by the way, he's bouncing off another opinion by Justice Holmes, written in the early 1900s – is that the power should be interpreted in terms of the Constitution and the Republic, where we have separation of powers, and checks and balances, and so our president should not have that power.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You suggest that modern administrations have been more secretive about the pardon process than earlier administrations in our country’s life. How come, and what do you think the consequences of that are?
P.S. RUCKMAN:
You know, the transition from the Truman Adminstration to the Eisenhower Adminstration serves as a good vehicle for understanding this. A congressman noticed that someone was pardoned toward the end of the Truman Administration, and he asked the Office of the Pardon Attorney for a list of persons who had been pardoned between the election and the end of Truman’s term.

And then, lo and behold, there were 20-something persons, and some fairly [LAUGHS] famous persons, and their applications didn't go through the normal processes. So now suddenly you had kind of this scandal.

Eisenhower came into office promising to avoid secrecy, but very quickly he took on a policy which presidents to this day have generally followed. If someone applies, it’s a secret. You know, if you ask the Office of the Pardon Attorney today who has applied, they will not tell you.

Now, if you have a particular person’s name in your mind and you ask them, has so and so applied, they will confirm that. And then who’s supporting the application is [LAUGHING] none of your business as far as the Office of the Pardon Attorney is concerned, and what the arguments are that they're making for the clemency, all that’s considered private information.

The best you can do is after the pardon is granted, maybe to do a FOIA request and get a bunch of redacted material.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You say that every generation has a pardon that they can never forget.
P.S. RUCKMAN:
Well, there’s a pardon that appears – if not a couple – which at the time is treated like this is the end-all act of clemency. You know, nothing can get more bizarre or controversial than this. And, in fact, in just a matter of years it’s completely off of the map.

And so when Charles Morse, for example, who almost wrecked Wall Street in the early 1900s, drank a soapy concoction to simulate death and got a deathbed pardon, then went home and got well and outlived the president who pardoned him [BROOKE LAUGHS], at the time that was the biggest darn thing that ever happened in the history of pardons. But today if you ask someone, who’s Charles W. Morse? - no one has any idea.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
[LAUGHS] Don't you think that we as Americans ought to be offended by the very idea of pardons?
P.S. RUCKMAN:
No. That’s a great question, but I could not disagree more, because there’s a longstanding recognition that the law can be too rigid, it cannot cover every circumstance, and the pardon power is there to serve as a safety valve for those circumstances where the written law, if you will, just doesn't understand.

And I think today when you look at the fact that mandatory minimum sentences are really locking in the discretion of judges, and you realize, wow, we need the pardon power really more than ever, and since the law-and-order campaigns of Richard Nixon, you know, criminals haven't been as popular as they used to be.
[LAUGHTER]
That “get tough on crime” attitude, you know, if you will, that’s out there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And so we like reading about pardons, writing about pardons because they're guaranteed to make us mad.
P.S. RUCKMAN:
I believe so.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Thank you so much.
P.S. RUCKMAN:
My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
P.S. Ruckman, Jr., editor of the PardonPower blog and author of the forthcoming book, Pardon Me, Mr. President: Adventures in Crime, Politics and Mercy.

*James Brown, the blood-sucking sailor, was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson, not Ulysses S. Grant