Outside Trump’s Inner Circle, Odds Are Long for Getting Clemency

Nichole M. Forde, a federal inmate serving 27 years in prison for trafficking crack cocaine from Chicago to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, saw the list of politicians and presidential pals who were granted clemency last week and lamented: What about people like me?

Ms. Forde, 40, incarcerated for a decade now, has no connection to President Trump. No reality TV star has championed her life story, with its attempts to overcome sexual abuse, drug addiction, mental illness, teenage motherhood and homelessness.

Unlike many of those pardoned by Mr. Trump in his final weeks in office, she says she did bad things and deserved to be punished. But she also says she has been helped during her time behind bars by PTSD counseling and occupational training classes that are teaching her plumbing.

Her clemency petition has languished at the Justice Department for four years. She just marked her ninth Christmas as an inmate, this time at a minimum-security camp in Illinois, with no fences preventing her from just walking away.

“I feel sad that not everyone has a fair and equal shot at a clemency,” Ms. Forde wrote in an interview conducted through the Bureau of Prisons email system. “I have just as much chance at hitting a Powerball number than getting a clemency.”

Mr. Trump used the power of his office last week to grant clemency to dozens of people, among them his daughter’s father-in-law, his former campaign manager and a longtime friend. He bestowed mercy on three Republican congressmen, one of whom pleaded guilty to stealing campaign funds for personal use, a second convicted of securities fraud, and a third serving a 10-year sentence after being convicted of fraud and money laundering. Others pardoned included two allies who were convicted of lying to the F.B.I. during the Russia investigation.

He also pardoned four Blackwater private security contractors convicted of a massacre in Baghdad who have ties to two Trump allies, including the secretary of education.

The vast majority of the people to whom he granted pardons or commutations had either a personal or political connection to the White House, and only seven were recommended by the government’s pardon attorney, according to a Harvard University professor who is tracking the process.

Although the regulation can be waived, the government normally only considers pardons for people who have served at least five years in prison, a rule that was not applied for a number of Mr. Trump’s cohorts.

More than 14,000 people with federal convictions are awaiting word on their applications for clemency.

Many who have applied have little chance of clemency under any circumstances. But those with sentences they contend are excessive and people who have shown remorse and turned their lives around in prison are hoping for mercy.

“We just are hopeful that the president will extend the pardons to people who aren’t rich, wealthy and well-connected — and there’s certainly thousands of them,” said Holly Harris, a Republican who has worked with Mr. Trump on reforms as head of Justice Action Network, a bipartisan criminal justice reform organization. “There’s certainly still time for the president to use this extraordinary power to help people who are really struggling.”

Among the applicants is Reality Winner, 29, the government translator who leaked a secret document showing Russia had hacked U.S. elections systems.

Ferrell D. Scott, 57, hopes the president reviews his petition, which shows he is serving life for marijuana trafficking, a sentence that even the federal prosecutor who tried his case said he did not deserve.

John R. Knock, 73, also serving life on a nonviolent marijuana charge, was already rejected by President Barack Obama but tried again with Mr. Trump. He has been in prison since 1996.

“It’s kind of like a competition instead of a legal procedure,” said Mr. Knock’s sister, Beth Curtis, who has advocated on behalf of her brother and other people serving life sentences for marijuana charges. “It’s a crony system.”

Kevin Ring, a Republican who does not support Mr. Trump and is president of a criminal justice reform group called FAMM, said he was optimistic that Mr. Trump would still consider the kind of people his group backs, such as Ms. Forde, who was sentenced as a career offender.

“It’s going to be head-scratchers mixed in with the ones that look good,” said Mr. Ring, himself a former federal inmate.

Using the power of clemency strictly on “blatantly political” cases would hurt the institution, Mr. Ring said.

Although more pardons are expected in the coming weeks, criminal justice activists are not encouraged by Mr. Trump’s track record so far. Jack Goldsmith, the Harvard professor who has analyzed Mr. Trump’s clemencies, said the president “is stingy” with his pardon power, “even as he abuses it.”

A study last month by the Pew Research Center showed that, by November, Mr. Trump had granted clemency less than any other president in modern history. The latest group of pardons now puts him second to George H.W. Bush. Before this latest batch of pardons and commutations, Mr. Trump had granted clemency to less than one-half of 1 percent of the more than 10,000 people who petitioned him for it through the end of the 2020 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, according to the study.

The Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney declined to comment, citing its policy to not grant interviews.

After having commuted her sentence in 2018, Mr. Trump in August pardoned Alice Johnson, who had served 22 years for cocaine distribution and money laundering. The pardon came after Ms. Johnson publicly praised the president and spoke at the Republican National Convention.

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Presidential Pardons, Explained

President Trump has discussed potential pardons that could test the boundaries of his constitutional power to nullify criminal liability. Here’s some clarity on his ability to pardon.

    • May a president issue prospective pardons before any charges or conviction? Yes. In Ex parte Garland, an 1866 case involving a former Confederate senator who had been pardoned by President Andrew Johnson, the Supreme Court said the pardon power “extends to every offense known to the law, and may be exercised at any time after its commission, either before legal proceedings are taken or during their pendency, or after conviction and judgment.” It is unusual for a president to issue a prospective pardon before any charges are filed, but there are examples, perhaps most famously President Gerald R. Ford’s pardon in 1974 of Richard M. Nixon to prevent him from being prosecuted after the Watergate scandal.
    • May a president pardon his relatives and close allies? Yes. The Constitution does not bar pardons that raise the appearance of self-interest or a conflict of interest, even if they may provoke a political backlash and public shaming. In 2000, shortly before leaving office, President Bill Clinton issued a slew of controversial pardons, including to his half brother, Roger Clinton, over a 1985 cocaine conviction for which he had served about a year in prison, and to Susan H. McDougal, a onetime Clinton business partner who had been jailed as part of the Whitewater investigation.
    • May a president issue a general pardon? This is unclear. Usually, pardons are written in a way that specifically describes which crimes or sets of activities they apply to. There is little precedent laying out the degree to which a pardon can be used to instead foreclose criminal liability for anything and everything.
    • May a president pardon himself? This is unclear. There is no definitive answer because no president has ever tried to pardon himself and then faced prosecution anyway. As a result, there has never been a case which gave the Supreme Court a chance to resolve the question. In the absence of any controlling precedent, legal thinkers are divided about the matter.
    • Find more answers here.

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