Presidential Pardons: Few From Obama, and None for O. Henry

Photograph by NYPL

O. Henry

President Barack Obama hasn’t pardoned a lot of people.

The 22 presidential pardons and one commutation of sentence issued by the president after four years in office amount to the fewest granted by any full-term president since George Washington, by the count of P.S. Ruckman Jr., a professor of political science at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill., and one of the national experts on the practice of executive clemency.

Which brings us to the case of the author known as O. Henry — William Sydney Porter,  a short story writer who penned a story a week for newspapers and magazines, most famously “The Gift of the Magi” — some of that work produced in prison.

O. Henry’s work may have been “praiseworthy,” the Justice Department says, but that alone is not evidence of rehabilitation.

Porter was indicted in 1896 on three counts of embezzlement of national bank funds in Texas, and after fleeing to New Orleans and then Honduras returned to face the charges in U.S. District Court. During three years of imprisonment at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus, he continued writing tales of Texas and Central America, collected in “Cabbages and Kings” in 1904. After release from prison in 1902, he moved to New York, which became the venue for his most lasting fiction. He died in 1910, at the age of 47.

“O. Henry” may have been an alcoholic, Ruckman noted in a petition filed late last year seeking posthumous clemency for the late author, yet Porter continued publishing stories behind bars, sending his manuscripts to a friend in New Orleans who relayed them to newspapers.

The petition is based on Porter’s “rehabilitation and post-prison life as a well-respected law-abiding citizen.”

This isn’t the first appeal for clemency filed on his behalf.

In 1985, the Office of the Pardon Attorney at the Department of Justice declined to process a request on Porter’s behalf. And Ronald Rodgers, the sitting pardon attorney at D.O.J., is “not inclined to take a contrary position.”

For one thing, Rodgers wrote to Ruckman and a colleague making the petition,  “the well-settled policy of the Justice Department not to accept for processing applications for posthumous pardon is grounded in the belief that the time and efforts of clemency officials are better dedicated to the clemency requests of living persons, who can actually benefit from the President’s mercy.”

Additionally, Rodgers noted, some — including Ruckman’s colleague, Scott Henson — have suggested that Porter suffered an injustice in a case rife with “irreparable flaws.” “It appears that at least a portion of the public accepts the claim that Porter was wrongly convicted,” the pardon attorney wrote, “”and would likely view a posthumous pardon as evidence of his innocence.”

The investigation of the 100-plus-year-old federal case against Porter and an inquiry into the extent of his rehabilitation would be a massive undertaking, he concluded. “A pardon is an expression of the President’s forgiveness, ordinarily granted in recognition of the applicant’s acceptance of responsibility for the crime and established good citizenship,” he wrote. “Although Porter’s writing is certainly praiseworthy, his literary works in and of themselves do not establish rehabilitation.”

The spirit of O. Henry may not want to take this denial too personally — though Ruckman has appealed it to the White House.

The Obama administration has shown historical restraint in the granting of clemency for the living, let alone the dead.

Obama has approved just 22 pardons, D.O.J. reports, and denied 1,019 petitions. The president has commuted one sentence, and denied  3,793 commutations. Hundreds of other cases, such as Porter’s, have been closed without presidential action.

The Bushes before him were sparing with that power as well. George W. Bush commuted the sentence of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff — Cheney wanted a pardon. President Bill Clinton stood out for his mercy — most memorably a slew of relief, including clemency for fugitive financier Marc Rich, as Clinton was leaving office. Presidents tend to be most generous with the power as they are leaving office — December is a banner month for clemency.

Washington issued the fewest pardons of any full-term president.

James Garfield issued the fewest, though he was assassinated four months after inauguration.

Franklin Roosevelt was the most generous, yet he had three terms and then some to sign the petitions.

So it’s possible, perhaps, that time still is on O. Henry’s side.

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