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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 3)

Years later, Armstead and Leggett each applied for a pardon. On paper, both were strong candidates. They had accepted responsibility in court and completed their sentences with good behavior.

Neither had any other criminal convictions. Both were active in their churches. Leggett and Armstead had both filled out lengthy applications in which they listed their crime, punishment and professional and personal history.

In April 2006, Bush followed the pardon attorney’s recommendation and approved a pardon for Leggett. A year later, Bush again followed the attorney’s advice and turned down Armstead.

Armstead had a personal reason for seeking a pardon: She had hoped to become a nurse. She was inspired to change professions while caring for her mother, who was dying of renal failure.


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“I would take off work and take her to the clinic,” she said.

An Arkansas nursing license requires a criminal-background check. Her felony record stood as a potential obstacle, her attorney told her. He recommended she apply for a presidential pardon. She was not aware that her 2002 request had been denied until a reporter informed her this year.

According to Justice Department memos, Armstead was denied “for a four-year course of criminal conduct for which [she] failed to take responsibility.” The four years referred to the four charges of tax evasion in the original indictment against her.

Adams said that he did not remember Armstead’s case but that, in general, applicants need to show remorse for any conduct they were indicted for, not just the charges to which they pleaded guilty.

“What the person did, as opposed to what they pled guilty to, is a relevant factor in judging how honest they are,” Adams said. “This spills over to attitude.”

A former White House lawyer said he had no idea the pardons office was considering indictments rather than only convictions in their deliberations.

“I definitely didn’t know that,” said Kenneth Lee, the associate White House counsel during Bush’s second term who dealt with the pardons office. “If we knew these kinds of things, our decision making may have been different.”

Leggett lives with her husband in Hot Springs, Ark., where they own a boat repair shop. She said she did not remember why she sought the pardon.

Kenneth Stoll prosecuted both Armstead and Leggett when he was an assistant U.S. attorney in Little Rock. Stoll said he does not recall either woman. The pardons office sought a recommendation for Leggett from the prosecutors’ office after Stoll had retired. He was not asked his opinion. But, he says now, Leggett’s crime was a more significant offense.

Leggett and her husband have been married for more than 30 years. They have owned or operated nearly a dozen businesses.

Though she was divorced when she applied for a pardon, Armstead would still appear to meet the “stability” test. She said her life has remained on an even keel—she continues to operate her beauty salon and does not have excessive debts.

For applicants who appear to be solid candidates, the pardons office considers the views of prosecutors and judges. Armstead’s case never reached that stage.

But the pardons office solicited advice on Leggett—and received lukewarm answers.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Little Rock took no position, and the judge did not object to a pardon. But Leggett’s bid was opposed by a high-ranking Justice Department official. Eileen J. O’Connor, the assistant attorney general in charge of all criminal tax matters, advised the pardons office that Leggett’s application should be denied because she did not “fully admit unconditional responsibility” for her crime.

O’Connor noted that Leggett omitted from her pardon application that she had rented the apartment under a false name and made a utility deposit as part of the ruse to file false returns.

“It appears that she has attempted in her quest for a pardon to minimize her involvement in the crime and shift the blame to her husband,” O’Connor wrote.

This could have posed a serious problem for Leggett. The Justice Department explicitly states that applicants need to take personal responsibility for their crimes and show remorse.

But in this instance, pardons office lawyers appear to have accepted what Leggett’s husband said at trial, which is that he had talked his wife into participating in the scheme.

Another factor in pardon applications is whether the person has a practical need for presidential mercy.

“If a person doesn’t have a reason, it doesn’t hurt,” Adams said of the policy. “And if a person wants forgiveness, that is fine, but if the need is for licensing or business ownership or to obtain a franchise, that will help, and the office will try to push it farther.”

But that did not help Armstead.

An Obscure Office

The declared intent of the Founding Fathers was to have presidential pardon power right miscarriages of justice. Former Supreme Court chief justice William H. Rehnquist called pardons a “fail safe” against the “unalterable fact that our judicial system, like the human beings who administer it, is fallible.”

Today, the pardons office places little emphasis on trying to help those who might be innocent. Applicants who claim they were victims of unjust treatment “bear a formidable burden of persuasion,” the pardons office says on its Web site. In practice, officials say, that burden is insurmountable.

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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?

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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.

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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”.

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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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