Or at least commute my sentence
The Short Version
President Obama pardoned 64 and commuted the sentences of over 200 people yesterday in one of the largest groups of commutations by any president. Included in this list was Chelsea Manning, the transgender former Army analyst convicted of leaking top secret material to WikiLeaks in 2009 and former Marine general James E. Cartwright who plead guilty to making false statements to the FBI. Many people are upset by Ms. Manning’s sentence commutation while others are wondering if this may open the door for prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Matters Of Distinction
Right off the bat, we need to make a couple of points clear. A presidential pardon largely removes one’s crime and its effects. All rights are restored and the legal record of the conviction is expunged. Commuting a sentence, however, does not remove the conviction nor many of the penalties related to that conviction. All commuting a sentence does is let a person out of jail sooner. They are still subject to reporting laws, may not regain the right to vote, and cannot be considered for any form of federal employment. All pardons and commutations are permanent and cannot be undone.
A Little More Detail
President Obama had already surpassed the record for the number of people he has pardoned or for whom he has commuted sentences. Mr. Obama has long considered the imprisonment of non-violent drug offenders to be a matter of injustice and the majority of his pardons and commutations have been focused toward releasing non-violent drug offenders from jail. Not a lot has been written or said about any of these actions, though they’ve been ongoing for quite a while.
What got everyone’s attention yesterday was the commutation of the 45-year sentence given to Chelsea Manning. Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan called the act “just outrageous,” saying that ” “Chelsea Manning’s treachery put American lives at risk and exposed some of our nation’s most sensitive secrets.” Ms. Manning, who was known as Bradley at the time of arrest, has presented some interesting problems for the federal prison system, however. Being held in the men’s facility at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary subjected Ms. Manning to severe abuse and mistreatment from other prisoners. At the same time, the system was unable to provide the transitional medical care Ms. Manning needed. She had attempted suicide twice in the past year.
Chase Strangio, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing Ms. Manning, said that Obama’s action could “quite literally save Chelsea’s life.”
In addition to Ms. Manning and General Cartwright, President Obama pardoned San Francisco Giants Hall of Famer Willie McCovey and hotelier Ian Schrager, both of whom were convicted of tax evasion, as well as commuting the sentence of Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar Lopez Rivera, an ultranationalist who, at age 74, is no longer considered a threat and would have otherwise likely died in prison.
The White House also announced that several more pardons and commutations would be announced on Thursday, the last day of President Obama’s administration. However, most of those will, again, be centered around drug offenders and no “big names” are expected.
Not For Everyone
What’s worth noting is who is not on any of the lists for pardons or sentence commutation. Edward Snowden, who, like Manning, leaked top-secret information to WikiLeaks, is not on the list. The White House has said that Snowden has not applied for clemency.
Also missing from the list is Native American activist Leonard Peltier, who was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment for first-degree murder in the shooting of two Federal Bureau of Investigation agents during a 1975 conflict on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, has widely been considered to have been convicted unjustly. Yesterday, James Reynolds, the federal prosecutor responsible for Peltier’s conviction, published a letter in the Chicago Tribune urging Peltier’s release saying “The government has gotten almost 41 years, and 41 pounds of flesh; Peltier is old and sick, and in my opinion, any more time served would be vindictive.” However, the White House has not responded on the matter.
There is also some speculation as to whether Ms. Manning’s clemency opens the door for some action against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. However, again, there is no official word from the Justice Department regarding those rumors. Given the timing and transition about to take place, it is unlikely that the Justice Department would initiate any new activity that would require completion by the new administration.