Clemency for prisoners: Too much control, not enough compassion

As an admitted control freak, it pains me to write these words. But the truth is:  some people have too much control.

You don’t have to look far to see it. In Washington, Grover Norquist has too much control. In the world of sports, some think that Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has too much power. Donald Trump and Carl Icahn and the Koch Brothers come to mind.  And right here in Missouri we have, surprisingly, Gov. Jay Nixon.

Nixon is a middle-of-the-road Democrat saddled with a Republican legislature.He seems to prefer to keep a low profile and doesn’t like to make waves. But in one area, he has ultimate authority: the power to grant pardons or clemency to any of the 31,000 individuals locked up in Missouri prisons.

This is an awesome responsibility, and it’s one that a few other states have seen fit to grant to special boards or commissions rather than the chief executive. That’s a sound idea, and can be explained in two words: Willie Horton.

Willie Horton was a convicted felon serving a life sentence in a Massachusetts prison in 1986. He was released as part of a weekend furlough program, and he failed to return.  While he was out he raped a woman and committed several other crimes before he was captured and put back in prison in Maryland.

Michael Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts when Horton was furloughed. When Dukakis sought the presidency two years later, the Willie Horton episode came to be a major factor in the campaign against him. He was portrayed as “soft on crime,” and this portrayal may have been one of the factors responsible for his defeat.

Jay Nixon is a lame-duck governor, but he has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the U. S. Senate, or even the vice presidency. With sugar plums like this dancing in his head, is it any wonder that the specter of Willie Horton looms large?

The governor could be relieved of a daunting and possibly perilous act if the power to grant clemency was removed from his office and granted to the state Board of Probation and Parole. Perhaps experts in criminal justice or psychiatry could be added to the panel when clemency is considered for qualified prisoners who likely pose no threat to society. The result might be more second chances for those who have made grievous mistakes and tried to pay their debt to society.

I feel sorry for Gov. Nixon. He has a number of clemency petitions on his desk. One is for a woman who killed her abusive husband; she has been a model prisoner for many years. If she is forced to complete her sentence, she will be 86 years old when she is released. Another is for a man who committed murder when he was 20 years old; the jury was not informed that he possibly acted in self-defense. His sentence was 50 years without the possibility of parole.

Granting clemency to these and others will require the governor to demonstrate both cojones and compassion; courage and conviction, and some common sense.  Let’s hope that he can remember that one of the synonyms for clemency is “mercy.”

  • Elizabeth Charlebois

    I found Barbara Finch’s Op Ed extremely compelling and there is an increasingly loud chorus of voices calling attention to this conspicuous failure of gubernatorial leadership. Many
    officials, including a former Republican Governor of my home state of Maryland, Bob Ehrlich have publically urged governors and even the President of the United States to responsibly exercise their vital executive power to grant clemency in cases that are clearly in need of review and demand their attention and active intervention. Constitutions
    of many states leave that power exclusively to the Governor and Ms. Finch is right in pointing out what an “awesome responsibility it is.” For governors not to act in the cases set before them is at best a failure of leadership and an abdication of the authority invested in the executive by the state constitutions and the people of the respective states who depend on the governor to intervene on their behalf. When governors fail to act because of the potential fallout or the “specter of a Willie Horton,” they reveal the cowardice of our elected officials who ostensibly are called to serve a higher purpose beyond their own reelection or political ambitions. This reluctance to act is even more conspicuous in the case of Governor Nixon who has the legal training and prosecutorial background to review such cases in concert with the recommendations made by his legal staff and the Board of
    Probation and Parole. Not to act implies that the State has never made an error in executing criminal justice and constitutes a peculiar sort of willful blindness that is clearly dangerous in its implications. Ms. Finch refers to a number of clemency petitions on Governor Nixon’s desk. She refers to a petition for an inmate accused of killing her husband who has been a model prisoner for many years who will be 86 years old when she is released. Although she doesn’t name names, I know of such a case that is currently pending on the Governor’s desk for Patty Prewitt, who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for 50 years. Patty maintained her innocence and rejected a plea bargain that would have likely released her in less than a decade. She has now served 26 years of this 50 year sentence. Like the woman Finch alludes to, she will be 86 years old before she is even eligible for parole. Her case for innocence has been championed by legal experts who have reviewed the trial records and appellate documents and find insufficient or tainted evidence, sloppy police work, testimony from highly compromised witnesses and “experts,” and a rush to judgment based on transparent gender bias that treated marital infidelities years before the crime as being tantamount to murder. If Patty Prewitt had been tried today, she wouldn’t be in prison; she would be free, out with her family, including her four adult children and ten grandchildren who have all been victims, not only of the violence that killed Bill Prewitt but the continued violence done by the State of Missouri in failing to review her case and insisting — beyond all reason and at any expense — that she spend the rest of her life in prison. Even if one refuses to entertain the disturbing likelihood that Patty was wrongly convicted, it is true that many violent criminals are free who have confessed to similar crimes and have served far fewer years behind bars than Patty. Further, she has been a model prisoner in every respect over the course of her two and a half decades of incarceration. A trained computer programmer, personal trainer, and aerobics instructor, Patty Prewitt has mentored a generation of women in prison and helped them to go on to lead lives of dignity and self-sufficiency. I appeal to Governor Nixon’s sense of fairness, of compassion, of mercy. In the State of Missouri he is the only one who can do justice in this case. The power is his and he should use it.

    For details on Patty Prewitt’s case and cause see

    For former Maryland Governor Bob Ehrlich’s record and perspective on executive pardons, please see

    Elizabeth Charlebois
    St. Mary’s City, MD
    St. Louis, MO