One year ago, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York announced a “clemency project” to breathe life into a power that has withered from disuse in the state and across the country: the granting of pardons and the commuting of prison sentences for people convicted of crimes.
Be careful what you wish for.
Among the people waiting to hear from the governor are three men, all convicted of murder, who have maintained their innocence as the years of their lives turned into decades in prison.
One is a 73-year-old man from Westchester County who had been in the sports memorabilia business at the time of his arrest. Another, 51, had been an auxiliary police officer in Brooklyn. The third, 41, was a teenager in Suffolk County, on Long Island, who had not yet finished high school.
Nothing in the American government system compares to the clemency power held by presidents and governors. One person can undo the findings of the judicial system; that person serves as a backstop against excesses, or as the repository of mercies that cannot be put into statutes.
Naturally, it is a power that scares the heck out of whoever holds it.
Beginning in the 1980s, the use of clemency plunged at both the state and federal level. Crime was climbing; mercy was politically dangerous. Since 2006, New York governors have granted clemency to less than one person for every 100 who sought it, with the exception of Gov. David A. Paterson, a Democrat, who used it for about three people in 100.
Until late last year, Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, had pardoned five people in about five years and had given no commutations. (A pardon wipes clean a conviction; the commutation of a sentence can make a person eligible for an earlier parole or immediate release.)
One big problem, said Alphonso B. David, the governor’s chief counsel, was that many prisoners did not understand how to ask. “We would get a single sheet of paper from a prisoner that said, ‘I would like clemency,’” Mr. David said. The governor and his staff needed to know if the person had made serious progress toward rehabilitation, had the ability to survive outside prison and would not pose a threat to public safety.
So the governor enlisted legal groups across the state to organize volunteer lawyers to prepare the prisoners’ requests. “It has been slow and it has been rocky,” Carol A. Sigmond, president of the New York County Lawyers’ Association, said. One revelation for the volunteers was how few prisoners were obvious candidates for clemency, such as people doing time for nonviolent drug offenses. New York has reduced the number of people it sends to prison by about 25 percent since 2000.
Last year, Mr. Cuomo commuted the sentences of two people convicted in drug cases, and pardoned two others who had long since finished their terms but faced problems because of their criminal records.
Those were the definition of low-hanging fruit.
So far, the new project has yielded six “robust” applications, Mr. David said.
“We have to think about giving people a second chance,” he said. “At the same time, we have to look at them also through a prism of not putting anyone at risk.”
The newer cases are politically harder than pardoning someone for an ancient drug possession charge. Of the six known pending applications, three were submitted on behalf of the men who were convicted of murder: Joseph Gordon, Felipe Rodriguez and Carlos Sanchez. All three are represented by Nina Morrison and Susan Friedman of the Innocence Project, who are collaborating with Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma on Mr. Rodriguez’s case.
Each has what appear to be plausible claims of innocence, but the cases lack the definitive proof that could get the men’s convictions overturned. What is uncontested are their strong prison records. Mr. Sanchez, arrested before he graduated from high school, will soon receive his bachelor’s degree in mathematics; Mr. Gordon, the former memorabilia dealer, works with inmates who are mentally ill or developmentally disabled; and Mr. Rodriguez is trusted with handling caustic chemicals and is credited by prison staff with rebuilding “much of our facility plumbing.”
They join a group that includes Judith Clark, who was convicted of three murders for serving as the getaway driver in the 1981 robbery of a Brinks armored car in Rockland County. After 35 years in prison, Ms. Clark, who is held in high esteem by prison officials as a counselor and teacher, faces decades more time.
Mr. Cuomo’s commitment to giving people a second chance will be tested.
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