On Dec. 19, President Barack Obama granted pardons to 78 felons to bring his total since 2011 to 148. He has commuted— or shortened — the sentences of an additional 1,178 convicted felons. While there may be argument surrounding the individuals selected or the procedure used to make those selections, the fact remains that over the past six years, President Obama has exercised his constitutional power of clemency to the benefit of those he felt most deserving of it.
The Colorado Constitution provides our governor with similar powers, including the exclusive authority to grant “public forgiveness” of a crime after completion of a sentence. This, too, is the power of clemency, and there are typically two kinds, commutation — or shortening — of a sentence and pardon. This gubernatorial power of clemency exists to fulfill our system’s goal and our moral obligation to provide justice. Clemency is not given, but rather earned. It is not the rule; it is the exception. There are those who have been held accountable by our system and who have paid their debt to society — including through loss of their liberty. That is not enough. Pardons are reserved for those who have either been completely exonerated and proven innocent or who have so fully rehabilitated themselves in society that they deserve to have their convictions wiped away.
In Colorado, since 2011, Gov. John Hickenlooper has granted no pardons and commuted no sentences. In fact, the only exercise of the governor’s constitutional powers of clemency has been to create a moratorium on the imposition of our death penalty by using the “reprieve” power for the first time since 1895. The result was to suspend the imposition of the death sentence earned by mass murderer Nathan Dunlap and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Although Gov. Hickenlooper did not appoint any members to the Executive Clemency Advisory Board during almost his entire first term in office, he has now filled that board and they likely have provided him with recommendations from the many petitions filed with his office seeking clemency.
Wayne Thomas is one such person. You may recall that Thomas went from Aurora teenage convicted felon with an incarceration sentence to a man who earned his doctorate, became a husband and father, and is an outstanding, upstanding, and contributing citizen in the community. His story has been told over the past few years by various media outlets. I have spoken to the governor’s office and I have hand-delivered a letter urging Mr. Thomas’ pardon. Still, he awaits the public forgiveness he has earned.
It takes political courage to grant clemency, or “public forgiveness,” to a convicted felon, especially in the middle of a politician’s time in office. The risk to a politician that such a person may re-offend and provide political fodder for an opponent or public embarrassment is many times too difficult to overcome.
I stand ready — as do all DAs I know — to endorse the pardons of those truly deserving of a second chance. Respectfully, Gov. Hickenlooper, whatever small risk there is, I will take it with you. Wayne Thomas has earned it. Others likely have, too. Let them start 2017 with a clean slate. Courage. Justice.
George H. Brauchler is District Attorney for the 18th Judicial District, which includes Aurora and Arapahoe County.