In his last week as US president, Barack Obama offered clemency to several hundred people, both through commuting sentences and granting pardons. While some high-profile names such as Chelsea Manning made the cut, some, like Edward Snowden or Marcus Garvey, did not.
But most of those who received clemency weren’t household names at all. Obama commuted the sentences of 209 people on Jan. 17 and of 330 on Jan. 19, continuing his effort to ease the effects of harsh drug sentencing in the United States. His commutations ended up at a grand total of 1,715, which is more than any US president in history, unless you count Gerald Ford’s initiative to grant clemency to more than 13,000 of draft dodgers and deserters during the Vietnam war.
On pardons, which fully forgive a crime, usually after a sentence has been completed, Obama has been more stingy. He’s pardoned 212 people, out of nearly 3,400 applications, which is less than most presidents in the last several decades. New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin has theorized that Obama’s dislike of the presidential power to pardon stems deep from his convictions and his constitution: Obama, ever the rationalist and believer in a certain order of things, might not like the idea that a pardon is based on a mere whim of an all-powerful, merciful leader.
Nearly 11,000 petitions for commutations and pardons remain unaddressed and will have to wait for the next administration.
There’s been a number of controversial, well-publicized cases in which advocates, or the people in question themselves, have lobbied for presidential mercy. In addition to Manning, Obama in his last week in office commuted the sentence of Oscar Lopez Riviera, a Puerto Rican nationalist linked to several deadly bombings in the 1970s. Among others, he pardoned Ian Schrager, the hotelier who owned Studio 54 and served prison time for tax evasion; former baseball star Wille McCovey, who also got into tax trouble; and general James Cartwright, who lied to the FBI about providing information to journalists.
Here are some names that did not make the list:
The NSA leaker who is currently living in Russia was charged with espionage in 2013. Obama has criticized Snowden’s actions, but said the debate that emerged from his disclosures “will make us stronger.” Former members of the so-called “Church Committee” created in the US Senate in 1975 to investigate illegal intelligence gathering wrote in a memo urging the Obama White House and Justice Department to consider negotiating Snowden’s charges, arguing: “There is no question that Snowden broke the law. But previous cases in which others violated the same law suggest leniency. And, most importantly, Snowden actions were not for personal benefit, but were intended to spur reform. And they did so.”
The former US sergeant who was held in Taliban captivity for five years is now awaiting trial for desertion. Republicans blasted the Obama administration for trading Bergdahl for five Taliban fighters, and doing so without appropriately notifying Congress. Bergdahl submitted a petition for a pre-emptive pardon. According to documents released by Bergdahl’s defense, he had once been diagnosed with severe mental illness.
The former Native American civil rights activist was convicted of murder in 1975 after two FBI agents were killed in a shootout on a reservation in South Dakota. There’s a wide coalition of people advocating for commuting his sentence, including former government officials. They underline his weak health. Amnesty International says that it is “seriously concerned about the fairness of proceedings leading to his trial and conviction.” Peltier was denied clemency this week.
The iconic black nationalist and civil rights advocate died in 1940, but his son and several black activists have been in recent weeks urging Obama to issue a posthumous pardon for Garvey’s 1923 conviction for mail fraud, which they say was trumped up. “The point is the injustice has been allowed to sit for [almost] 100 years. It is a continuing injustice that needs to be corrected,” his son Julius Garvey told The Washington Post.
Supporters of the former black nationalist Mutulu Shakur were galvanized after New York governor Andrew Cuomo recently commuted the sentence of Judith Clark, who was convicted in relation to the same 1981 crime as Shakur—an armed robbery that left a guard and two police officers dead. Shakur, the step-father of rapper Tupac Shakur, was reportedly the brains behind the operation, which was carried out by a group of radical leftist activists. He has served 30 years of his 60-year term and has been denied parole eight times.
The former Illinois governor—who, in exchange for campaign funds, tried to “sell” an appointment to the Senate seat Obama left vacant when he became president—is serving a 14-year term for corruption. He hasn’t requested a pardon, but rather a commutation of his prison sentence. If Obama does not address his petition, it will be up to Trump, who knows Blagojevich from his show The Celebrity Apprentice, in which he praised the former governor for his “guts” in his criminal case fight.
The former CIA officer was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison for giving New York Times journalist James Risen classified information on an operation against the Iran nuclear program. Reporters Without Borders has called for his release as a whistleblower.