Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s Clemencies

Former Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin (by Gage Skidmore)
Former Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin (by Gage Skidmore)

This week, outgoing Republican Governor Bevin of Kentucky issued 428 clemencies. Clemency is an issue very relevant to Prison Voice as the moment, as we are very close to releasing our own report on clemency in the state of Washington.

Initial news reports about these clemencies were almost universally negative and sensational:

US Today: Kentucky governor pardons convicted killer whose brother hosted campaign fundraiser for him.

WKYT: Former Kentucky governor pardons convicted child rapist.

WDRB: Bevin pardons convicted murderer, raising ire of Laurel County prosecutor

But later reports are starting to add some nuance to these reports. One particularly interesting commentary was in this oped: “In defense of pardons: It may be the only way to free an innocent person,” particularly this statement:

First and foremost, a pardon is often the only way to free an innocent person. This may sound incredible, but it’s true. Once a person is convicted of a crime, they likely will never again have the opportunity to argue their innocence in court. Appeals and post-conviction challenges are not decided based on guilt or innocence. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that “actual innocence” is not a valid claim to reverse a conviction.

The article continues to explain the justification for one of the more controversial clemencies:

Many of Gov. Bevin’s pardons, including that of “convicted killer” Delmar Partin, were based on the Governor’s belief that an innocent person was in prison. Since Mr. Partin’s pardon, the original prosecutor has expressed outrage, saying that Partin is absolutely guilty. Others, who know nothing about the evidence in the case, are also horrified that Gov. Bevin has freed a “murderer.”

We cannot know whether these claims of innocence are true are not. Maybe we need a category of “maybe innocent,” where if someone has served some fraction of their sentence, but had a less-than-obvious conviction, we give them the benefit of the doubt after awhile. This seems to be what Bevin is doing in many cases.

In our own state of Washington, the clemency process generally proceeds in a very slow but orderly fashion, with about 5 clemencies per year being issued, mostly for three-strikers. This pales in contrast to Bevin’s actions, who just granted over 400 clemencies, including several with murder convictions. In spite of several recommendations to Gov. Inslee for clemency by the state Clemency and Pardons board, in all cases Gov. Inslee has overturned the board and rejected clemency for those with murder convictions.

Fear of the negative headlines that we are now seeing in reponse to Bevin’s pardons is undoubtedly why Inslee has been so reticent to grant clemency to those with the most severe convictions.

Does it have to be this way? We call on the Democrat Inslee to show some of the courage that the Republican Bevin has showed in granting clemencies in controversial cases.

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