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Shades of Mercy: Presidential Forgiveness Heavily Favors Whites

Posted on Dec 4, 2011
AP / Charles Dharapak

By Dafna Linzer & Jennifer LaFleur, ProPublica

(Page 2)

All of the drug offenders forgiven during the Bush administration at the pardon attorney’s recommendation—34 of them—were white.

Turning over pardons to career officials has not removed money and politics from the process, the analysis found. Justice Department documents show that nearly 200 members of Congress from both parties contacted the pardons office regarding pending cases. In multiple instances, felons and their families made campaign contributions to the lawmakers supporting their pleas. Applicants with congressional support were three times as likely to be pardoned, the statistical analysis shows.

In reviewing applicants, pardon lawyers rely on their discretion in ways that favor people who are married and who have never divorced, declared bankruptcy or taken on large amounts of debt. The intent, officials say, is to reward people who demonstrated “stability” after their convictions. But the effect has been to exclude large segments of society.

The ProPublica data show that applicants whose offense was older than 20 years had the best odds of a pardon. Married people, those who received probation rather than prison time, and financially stable applicants also fared better. When the effects of those factors and others were controlled using statistical methods, however, race emerged as one of the strongest predictors of a pardon.


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The most striking disparity involved African Americans, who make up 38 percent of the federal prison population and have historically suffered from greater financial and marital instability. Of the nearly 500 cases in ProPublica’s sample, 12 percent of whites were pardoned, as were 10 percent of Hispanics.

None of the 62 African Americans in the random sample received a pardon. To assess the chances of black applicants, ProPublica used the sample to extrapolate the total number of black applicants and compare it with the seven blacks whom Bush pardoned. Allowing for a margin of error, this yielded a pardon rate of between 2 percent and 4 percent.

Adams, the head of the pardons office under Bush, said applicants were not penalized based on race. In fact, Adams went out of his way, he said, to help black applicants.

“People in general more and more feel that it is appropriate to give extra consideration to a member of a minority group,” he said.

Applicants are not asked about their race. But race is listed in many of the law enforcement documents collected for the application, including pre-sentence reports, rap sheets and Federal Bureau of Prisons records.

Under Justice Department regulations, Adams said, lawyers in the pardons office conduct a rigorous review of an applicant’s offense. They then examine character, reputation and post-conviction behavior—tests of what Adams termed “attitude.”

“Is the person seeking a pardon for forgiveness or vindication?” Adams said. “Are they going to wave a flag around that says a pardon proves they didn’t do as bad as the government said?” If so, he said, “it is counted against them.”

Samuel Morison, a lawyer who worked in the pardons office for 13 years, said there is an institutional interest in preserving the convictions secured by the government’s prosecutors.

“The pardon office is not a neutral arbiter, because the Justice Department was a party to every criminal case it examines,” Morison said.

The yardsticks used by the office under Adams continue to be used under his successor, Ronald L. Rodgers, a former federal prosecutor and military judge.

Theodore B. Olson, a former solicitor general who has represented high-profile pardon applicants, said he has long been frustrated by the slow pace of the process and its lack of transparency. The Justice Department says the office has increased its efficiency, deciding cases in a little more than two years, an improvement since 2005, when the wait was twice that.

When a pardon is denied, the notice comes with no explanation.

“It just comes out of the blue,” Olson said. “You can’t explain to your client why, especially when you think you’ve made a strong case.”

Parallel Cases, Disparate Outcomes

Denise Armstead’s beauty salon sits on a busy corner in Little Rock’s west side. A big sign out front beckons customers from the largely African American neighborhood.

Armstead, who is black, became a hair stylist straight out of high school and dreamed of owning her own salon. Like many small-business owners, she kept her own receipts. An accountant filled out her tax forms.

In 1994, the federal government accused Armstead, then 35, of failing to report $32,000 in income over four years. She hired a lawyer and fought the charges, ultimately getting them reduced to a single count of under-reporting her income in 1989.

Her lawyer, a former Internal Revenue Service employee, advised that a trial would cost more than the $3,000 fine, she said. In a plea bargain, she received three years’ probation and paid the fine in installments.

In the same city, Margaret Leggett and her husband, who are white, were also accused of violating federal tax laws. In 1981, Leggett rented an apartment under a fictitious name and her husband created a fake bank account and fake Social Security numbers. They then filed for multiple tax refunds totaling more than $25,000.

Leggett pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the government by making false claims. In her mid-30s, she was sentenced to three years in prison but was released after three months. Her husband paid a $5,000 fine and served 15 months in prison.

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By ardee, December 8, 2011 at 5:47 am Link to this comment

It bears repetition:

tomstedham, December 7 at 4:22 pm

Email you? I have to take a hot shower just reading your screed here.

Report this

By tomstedham, December 8, 2011 at 5:22 am Link to this comment


Awwww.,.. Is that the best you have? I have
“screed”??? Sad. I didn’t insult anyone. I simply
pointed out that many white people don’t consider
members of several ethic minority groups to be
“white”, especially “Jews”... I notice that you chose
not to address that.
Jerry Seinfeld is just as “not white” as Salma Hayek.
A rich white man does not run the Federal Reserve,
for example. And when Clinton pardoned Marc Rich,
that wasn’t a rich white guy getting a pardon.
When you see “white man” it’s important to dig a
little deeper, because sometimes… it’s not a
“white” man at all.

Report this

By ardee, December 8, 2011 at 3:59 am Link to this comment

tomstedham, December 7 at 4:22 pm

Email you? I have to take a hot shower just reading your screed here.

Report this

By tomstedham, December 7, 2011 at 5:22 pm Link to this comment

I really don’t want to get into a detailed discussion
of “who’s not white” on this webpage. Feel free to
email me.
When I said “most of us”, I was using shorthand to
refer to “most of us white people who feel that Jews
aren’t white”...
To me, Jerry Seinfeld isn’t “white”, nor is Barbara
Streisand, or Ben Bernanke or Paul Wolfowitz.
Of course, neither is Kim Kardashian, Ricky Martin or
Salma Hayek. I hope you can see my point.
But my original point is that when “white people” are
blamed, many times those people aren’t actually
White is usually a shorthand for WASP, or redneck,
etc. Jews, by very definition, aren’t “WASP”...

Report this

By ardee, December 7, 2011 at 5:08 pm Link to this comment

Isaac Toussie is Jewish. Most of us don’t consider that to be “white”.

Most of whom?

Report this

By vince remus, December 6, 2011 at 6:18 pm Link to this comment

I agree with the arguments of everyone who posted.
How can we ensure future pardons are not tainted by the
color of the skin, race, religion or ethnicity?

We all have our prejudices but people who are truly in
favor of social justice must take a stand against
bigotry and racism, no matter the target.

Report this

By Markos, December 5, 2011 at 2:15 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I have always thought these segregated groups such as NAACP, Hispanics, Asians are ridiculous.  Poverty touches everyone and NO one has a separate problem and without taking into account strategies of how people solve problems, you lessen your options.  How can groups that scream diversity allow lack of diversity in their own group?  Stupid and arrogant
Divide and conquer

No wonder more whites get to the front of the line, its the buddy system and minorities need to quit joining these groups and make peace with the beast, otherwise they don’t even know who you are.

Report this
Samson's avatar

By Samson, December 4, 2011 at 8:19 pm Link to this comment

The one thing we know for sure is that its all about
money.  Its not about race or skin color. If you want
a presidential pardon, make big contributions.  We
saw that quite clearly at the end of the Clinton
years.  Its still undoubtedly true, even though the
spotlight moved off the process along with the chaser
of devils in blue dresses.

Its also true that the people with the money to buy
these pardons are more likely to be white than any
other color.  That’s history.  But no president is
going to turn down cash based on skin color.  Leonard
Peltier is still in prison because he’s poor, not
because he’s Indian.  A casino owner could get a
pardon if he had the cash, even if he’s Indian.

Report this

By Tom Stedham, December 4, 2011 at 4:04 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

They aren’t all “white”...
Isaac Toussie is Jewish. Most of us don’t consider
that to be “white”. Why didn’t you break the pardons
down by ethnicity? If you are using “Hispanic” as a
category, then “Jewish” is just as valid.

But the large numbers would have opened up a tricky
politically-incorrect can of worms, wouldn’t it? You
certainly couldn’t use a headline like:
“Shades of Mercy: Presidential Forgiveness Heavily
Favors Whites… and Jews”

Report this

By ardee, December 4, 2011 at 12:13 pm Link to this comment

No! Really! A two part article to discuss the blatantly obvious?

Report this

By John Poole, December 4, 2011 at 12:01 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Shouldn’t the heading be:  “.....heavily favors sleazy people regardless of race”.

Report this

By felicity, December 4, 2011 at 11:41 am Link to this comment

No surprise here.  A typical white family ‘holds’ one
dollar:  A typical black family ‘holds’ 10 cents.  It’s
a sorry fact that, today, money calls the ‘shots’ in

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