9 People Who Deserve a Pardon More Than a Turkey

The Thanksgiving turkey pardon seems like a silly, sort of fun tradition, but it hides a darker issue in America: 2.2 million people are incarcerated without much of a chance at receiving a presidential pardon.
Publish date:
November 27, 2014
president obama, prison reform, presidential turkey pardon

The origins of the Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon are pretty murky. At the very least, it's been a consistent White House publicity event since 1989, when President Reagan spared a turkey the cleaver. However, its origins seem to lie somewhere in the 19th century, when at least a handful of presidents took mercy on their Thanksgiving dinners; though in all likelihood, they had a backup bird for their tables. (In fact, ominously, often there's a packaged dead bird on the table right alongside the pardoned turkey, perhaps a grim reminder of the fate the poor bird narrowly escaped.)

As an American tradition, the turkey pardon is pretty ridiculous. It's clearly meant to be a light-hearted event that allows the White House to tip its hat to Thanksgiving celebrants (though many are doubting whether the holiday should be celebrated at all) and blow off some steam. Memorably, it even showed up in "The West Wing," and this year, it appeared to deeply perplex John Oliver.

But on a more serious note, the President has a rather immense power when it comes to the ability to issue pardons. Petitioners convicted of federal crimes can file a formal request with supporting documentation, asking the White House for the "second chance" the President touted in his Presidential Turkey Pardon video above. The process for turkeys is a lot less complicated than for humans (a turkey company selects two good-looking specimens and sends them over). But the process for people is a whole lot more important, given the number of people wrongfully imprisoned, doing excessive time under mandatory sentencing laws, and more.

Following is a list of people who deserve a presidential pardon a whole lot more than a bird -- even if you love birds.

1. Leonard Peltier

Leonard Peltier is currently serving two consecutive life sentences for the murder of two FBI agents in 1975. The Anishinabe-Lakota Native American has insisted that while he was present at the events that occurred on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975, he wasn't responsible for the men's deaths -- and many human rights organizations are concerned about the trial process, whether his rights were respected, and whether he should be in prison at all. Numerous public figures, including Nelson Mandela, advocated for the release of Peltier, and while the President has reviewed the case, he's declined to offer a pardon.

2. Mumia Abu-Jamal

Accused and convicted of killing police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981, Jamal's sentence was commuted to life in prison after 30 years when the District Attorney decided not to pursue the death penalty -- in consultation with the family of the victim. His involvement with the Black Panthers and other radical organizations made him an easy target during his trial, which included a racially imbalanced jury consisting of just two Black people and ten whites. He's become one of the nation's most high-profile prisoners, thanks to spending three decades on death row and being outspoken about his case and prison conditions.

3. Weldon Angelos

In a frustrating case of how mandatory minimums ruin lives, Angelos was sentenced to 55 years in prison for three minor marijuana sales. Supporters including attorneys general, governors, and judges have spoken out on his behalf, arguing that the President should pardon him in the interests of justice. This is an especially acute issue given that states like California are rethinking mandatory minimums. Tellingly, even Republicans are starting to oppose them. You might not think of Rand Paul as an exemplar of progressivism, but he's joined the chorus of conservatives speaking out against mandatory minimums.

4. Kenneth George Harvey, Jr.

While the justice system has some serious racial imbalances, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 was specifically designed to address some of these imbalances, and in 2011, the U.S. Sentencing Commission ruled that it should apply retroactively. Congress passed the act in response to the gross disparities in convictions for crack versus powder cocaine and the clear racialization of these imbalances; Black men were going to prison at a disproportionate rate for crack sales, while white dealers received much more lenient sentences for powder cocaine. Judge Howard Sachs was actually uneasy about Harvey's life sentence, but felt that his hands were tied because of mandatory minimums. Harvey's case has become a high-profile example of racist mandatory minimums, and his clemency would be symbolic and important.

5. Jesse Webster

Another victim of mandatory sentencing, Webster is doing life in prison without parole for drug dealing. A high school dropout, he actually turned himself in to the law when he realized that he was an object of pursuit, and he was rewarded with a harsh sentence that's left him pleading with the president for clemency, with no response. As has been the case with a growing number of federal judges, Judge James B. Zagel expressed discontent with mandatory sentencing at Webster's trial.

6. Sharanda Purlette Jones

A Texas jury convicted Jones of a nonviolent crack cocaine-related conspiracy, relying solely on the testimony of fellow conspirators in a trial that was clearly flawed. In what you are probably sensing is a theme, she was sentenced to life without parole as a result of mandatory minimums. Jones' case was littered with flaws, including no physical link to the evidence in the case, yet the mother will be spending the rest of her life behind bars.

7. Teresa Griffin

Another mother, Griffin was sentenced to life without parole at just 26. After enduring domestic violence, being forced to serve as a drug mule, and threats, she was sucked into the legal system and convicted of involvement in a drug trafficking ring. From the start, she was handled unfairly; she wasn't read her Miranda Rights, prosecutors lied to her about the nature of the case, and she was terrified to testify because she thought she would lose her children.

8. LaVonne Roach

Another prisoner facing decades of prison for nonviolent drug offenses, Roach is a Lakota woman who endured abuse, poverty, and drug abuse in her community throughout her childhood and young adulthood. Despite the terrible circumstances of her early years, this mother fought to educate herself in prison and has become an example of a "model prisoner" -- despite the fact that, given the circumstances of her trial, she doesn't really belong there at all.

9. Scott Panetti

Set to be executed in Texas next week for the murder of his in-laws with a rifle, Panetti represents a complicated case. Incontrovertible evidence clearly identifies that he's guilty. But he's also mentally ill, with severe schizophrenia that was poorly managed at the time of the murders, and continues to cause substantial mental health problems. At the time of his trial, he was allowed to represent himself despite the fact that he was clearly not competent to do so, and the result was an episode that was effectively a "farce," in the words of an attorney who witnessed it. While Panetti may be guilty, he doesn't deserve execution, and his case highlights the fact that the prison system is one of the primary mental health providers in the nation, something that needs to change. Mental illness shouldn't be criminalized, and prisoners like him deserve treatment, not execution.

The vegetarians among us would probably long for a turn away from turkey consumption this week -- an estimated 46 million will die for the cause. However, hopefully even they can agree that our unjust "justice system" needs a nudge in the direction of reform.

Presidential pardons, though they can potentially be a tool for abuse of the legal system, are also a powerful tool for releasing or commuting the sentences of prisoners who were treated unfairly. This list is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to prisoners serving time for nonviolent offenses, under mandatory minimums, or in cases with highly suspicious trial circumstances. That matters a whole lot more than a single turkey. Or even two.

Notably, as you may have observed from this list, the system is heavily slanted against people of color, and presidential pardons are also much harder to obtain for people of color, according to a ProPublica investigation. Whites, overall, are four times more likely to be pardoned. Moreover, low-income inmates (who are already at higher risk of being incarcerated because of their financial circumstances) lack access to appointed attorneys and other supports.

Meanwhile, there's something you can do to fight back against injustices in court: If you're seated on a jury, learn about jury notification. If you believe a law is unjust, you can vote to acquit; even if the defendant is technically, considering the evidence put before you, guilty. Juries may argue that while the case meets the standards set forth under the rule of law, the injustice of the law overrides the obligation to convict, perhaps because the law is racialized, a defendant was profiled, or the punishment doesn't fit the crime. While nullification isn't used very often, and applies only to individual cases (it doesn't set a legal precedent), it can send a message to legislators and other policymakers if it keeps happening in cases of a similar nature.