Shades of Mercy: Presidential Forgiveness Heavily Favors Whites
Posted on Dec 4, 2011
By Dafna Linzer & Jennifer LaFleur, ProPublica
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.
Square, Site wide
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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