Patricia Hearst is the first person in American history to receive a commutation from one president and a pardon from another, author Jeffrey Toobin writes in his book, American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst. Hearst had served 22 months of a seven-year sentence in federal prison for bank robbery when President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence — sentence reductions are part of the presidential pardon power embedded in the U.S. Constitution. Later, Bill Clinton pardoned — that is, removed all punishment and restored her civil rights — Hearst. She was one of Clinton’s infamous 140 out-the-door pardons that included fugitive gazillionaire Marc Rich.
“The fact that she got these two presidential gestures of forgiveness is the purest example of privilege on display that frankly I have ever seen in the criminal justice system today,” Toobin told NPR. The commutations and pardons serve as an example of “wealth and privilege in action.”
I enjoyed the book, which I finished over the weekend. I figured Toobin must be right about Hearst’s commutation and pardon because he’s a high-profile writer for the New Yorker and a CNN legal analyst. But then I tweeted one of my favorite sources, political science professor P.S. Ruckman Jr., who runs the Pardon Power blog, and asked for a comment. I expected Ruckman to concur and add some perspective. Instead and to the contrary, Ruckman stated that he had seen many examples of inmates receiving a commutation from one president, then a pardon from another. Indeed, he told me over the phone, “I feel pretty sure it would be easy to find a hundred examples.”
Ruckman, who had taken issue with Toobin before, has been having a field day in his blog since as he tosses out examples of recipients of presidential clemency from two presidents. “I think it could be argued that it’s just a nitpicky kind of thing,” Ruckman told me after he noted the mistakes was “inexcusably sloppy” as a modicum of research would have shown the assertion was just plain wrong.
I sympathize with Toobin. As every journalist knows, we all make mistakes, most of them avoidable. Toobin told me Monday he regrets the error and welcomes all corrections that improve the record. He didn’t know about the pardons Ruckman cited. He should have said Hearst was the first such recipient in “modern American history.”
I’ve always thought Hearst, a member of the family that owns the San Francisco Chronicle, was a fitting recipient of the presidential clemency because her life of crime began involuntarily — when the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped a terrified 19-year-old. But I wasn’t planning on writing on the book because I don’t want to look like a suck-up to the Hearsts.
Thing is, the timing of Toobin’s big mistake could not be worse. Like other recent presidents — think George W. Bush — President Obama was notably unmerciful in his first term. In his second term, Obama stepped up. He has commuted sentences for 562 inmates, most of them low-level drug offenders serving draconian mandatory minimum terms. But on the pardon front, Obama lags seriously behind.
Presidents used to pardon commutation recipients regularly, Ruckman noted, and “we’d like to see this happen in the future.” People with felony records “need their rights restored”; winning that government seal of approval “should be a plausible goal for them.” This is the time to encourage Obama to grant more pardons to people who have turned their lives around, not make them seem like spoils for the rich.
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