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Inside the decline in Christmas Eve clemency

In a rare interview, the US pardon attorney explains how get-tough

It's that time of year again, and deep inside the Department of Justice, a small group of lawyers are waiting.

They're not expecting news about Christmas bonuses. Rather, the six public servants are eager to learn who will get the gift of freedom - in the form of a presidential pardon.

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Throughout the year, the staff of the Office of the Pardon Attorney sorts through hundreds of clemency requests from federal felons. The team makes its recommendations to the president, and most years about this time he decides whether to invoke his constitutional power of granting a pardon.

"It's all a matter of grace," said US Pardon Attorney Roger Adams during a rare interview. "There is not a checklist" for a successful pardon.

Pardon requests come from the obscure, such as convicted draft evader Preston King who has been living in Britain since 1961, to the famous, such as American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier or spy Jonathan Pollard. But if President Clinton's tenure is any guide, not many pardon-seekers should get their hopes up too high.

Indeed, Mr. Clinton has followed a recent presidential trend of cutting back on Christmas Eve dispensations of forgiveness.

In an era characterized by longer incarcerations and a "get tough" mentality, presidents of both parties have been using this power less frequently. In fact, Clinton has granted fewer pardons than any of the five presidents since Richard Nixon.

That, however, does not slow the thousands of letters, phone calls, and personal pleas that pour in throughout the year. Does any of this robust lobbying - by everyone from foreign heads of state to desperate spouses - affect the recommendations?

"It's a personal act from the president," says Mr. Adams. "He gets advice from the Justice Department and White House counsel, but only one man makes that decision."

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The job of pardon attorney dates back to 1893, but even before then pardon clerks advised presidents since George Washington. Red leather volumes of past pardons line the shelves of Adams's Justice Department office.

When his office (six lawyers and nine staff) receives a request for pardon, it reviews the case - sometimes interviewing the petitioner or asking the FBI to investigate - and makes a recommendation. After the US attorney general signs the recommendation, it is passed along to White House counsel.

"The things we look for are: What kind of offense is it? Was a weapon used? Has the person committed other crimes?... Was it a random act in an otherwise normal life?" Adams says.

Presidents can erase a conviction or end punishment for any federal or military crime. A pardon wipes clean criminal conviction and liability. A wide-ranging pardon to a group is a general amnesty. A commutation of sentence springs a person from jail but does not erase a criminal conviction.

In his tenure, Clinton has granted 74 pardons and 16 commutations. This fall, he infuriated members of both parties by granting commutations in the high-profile cases of Puerto Rican nationalists.

Still, the vast majority of pardons involve noncelebrities. Last Christmas Eve, for example, Clinton granted clemency to Bobby Joe Miller, sentenced in 1982 for concealing knowledge of a felony. On Christmas Eve 1997, Glen Edison Chapman got clemency 40 years after being convicted of possessing and concealing nontaxed whiskey.

But fewer felons are finding pardons under the Christmas tree. Experts say the decline began in the 1988 presidential campaign, when George Bush hammered Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis for giving temporary freedom to Willie Horton. While free, Mr. Horton raped a woman and terrorized her companion.

But the slowing of presidential pardons began during the Reagan administration.

"Some years ago, presidents would grant 125 pardons a year and maybe 10 or 12 commutations," says John Stanish, pardon attorney from 1977 to 1980. If that were still true, Clinton would have granted 900 pardons and 100 commutations by now. "If Eisenhower or Nixon or Ford were in office, it would have happened."

Perhaps the most famous pardon in US history was President Gerald Ford's pardon of Nixon after the Watergate scandal, an act many scholars believe cost him reelection.

According to Tim Blessing, a historian at Alvernia College in Redding, Pa., it was the kind of pardon that gets the country "out of a jam," keeping it from reliving a war, national conflict, or scandal.

Andrew Johnson used it to promote healing after the Civil War, issuing a blanket amnesty to confederate soldiers. In the same spirit, Jimmy Carter granted absolution to Vietnam draft evaders. "I don't know that I wanted to see tens of thousands of Vietnam draft evaders on trial," Dr. Blessing says. "It would have torn the country to pieces."

In the first year of Warren Harding's administration, a Christmas Eve pardon was issued to Socialist leader Eugene Debs. Harding went to considerable lengths to ensure the warden had the pardon in time for Debs to be released for the holiday.

"Many Americans were quite willing to let World War I die. It was the roaring '20s; people wanted to get on with things and make money, and thought [Debs's] pardon was a good one," says Robert Murray, professor emeritus of American history at Pennsylvania State in State College.

Hope for clemency has risen this holiday season because Clinton, heading into his final year, is somewhat insulated from negative political results.

With that in mind, supporters of Mr. Peltier recently held a 25-day vigil in Lafayette Park across from the White House. Their goal: freeing from Leavenworth prison the man convicted in 1975 of murdering two FBI agents at a shootout near Wounded Knee, S.D.

Waiting to learn of presidential action is "tortuous," says Gina Chiala, coordinator of the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee in Leavenworth, Kan.

The White House seems unconcerned about Clinton's record. "This really isn't about accumulating numbers or percentages," says White House spokesman Jim Kennedy. "It's about what's just. We'll let the rest speak for itself."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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