Tag Archives: The New York Times

The governor’s power to grant clemency

Under the New York State Constitution, the governor has the power to grant clemency to prisoners “upon such conditions and with such limitation, as he may think proper” (excluding for crimes of treason or impeachment). Most states in the U.S. give the extraordinary power of clemency to governors (or at least in some hybrid arrangement with a parole board). The issue is currently in the news because of the recent shooting deaths of four police officers in Washington State, allegedly by Maurice Clemmons, whose prison sentence in Arkansas was commuted in 2000 by then-Gov. Mike Huckabee. The speculation is that the willingness of Huckabee, who ran an upstart presidential campaign in 2008, to grant clemency may hurt his presidential ambitions in 2012. It is in this context that I noticed an excellent post on The New York Times’ City Room blog on this very issue. It begins:

This month Gov. David A. Paterson will be mulling the fate of roughly 150 inmates in New York prisons who have formally applied for clemency in the hope of having their prison sentences shortened or their criminal convictions forgiven.

It is a traditional — if increasingly rare — holiday gesture of mercy. Over three and a half decades the number of inmates who have had their sentences commuted or convictions pardoned has steadily dropped.

The post’s author, A.G. Sulzberger, goes on to say that unfortunately, many governors now weigh the political consequences of granting clemency, particularly if they are to soon to go before the electorate. Prison advocates like Robert Gangi, director of the Correctional Association of New York, fear that this year, Gov. Paterson, facing low poll numbers and the upcoming election, will grant clemency to few, if any, inmates.

Similarly, in 2006, when then-Gov. George E. Pataki was mulling over a 2008 presidential run, he declined to grant clemency to any inmates.

One wonders then, whether he would have been willing to commute the prison sentence of Elaine Bartlett in 2000 if he had faced an upcoming election (his next was in 2002) or considered vying for a spot on the Republican presidential ticket that year. I recently finished the book,“Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett,” which tells Bartlett’s story of serving a 20-to-life sentence for a first-time drug offense under the Rockefeller Drug Laws until Pataki commuted her sentence after 16 years. It was tough enough for Bartlett to receive clemency when Pataki did not face the circumstances described above, so I can only imagine if he had. She probably would have served at least another four years, when in truth, she should have been granted clemency after ten (half of the minimum of the sentence). But in 1995, Pataki had just been elected in the mold of a “law-and-order” Republican — surely not someone who was going to be granting clemency.

But after watching this clip of Pataki last week — considered a dark-horse for the 2012 Republican presidential nod — drawing a contrast between his record and that of Huckabee, I get the feeling that Elaine Bartlett was lucky to have received a commutation at all.

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NYCLU files lawsuit seeking access to info about police shootings

The New York Civil Liberties Union sued the NYPD last week to obtain more information and facts about police shootings. The organization is seeking access to two internal police reports: one prepared immediately after a shooting of a civilian, and the other, a more detailed report completed within a few months of the incident.

The NYCLU has filed multiple Freedom of Information Law requests over the last three years—since police shot and killed an unarmed Sean Bell in Queens in November 2006—seeking annual statistical reports about shootings since 1996, as well as data on the race of the victim. The police department produced the reports, but stopped releasing information about race after the 1998 report, at about the time officers shot and killed an unarmed Amadou Diallo in the Bronx in February 1999. Nearly nine out of ten shooting victims in 1996 and 1997 were black or Latino.

Also last week, The New York Times reported that the NYPD released a report showing police officers fired their guns about 16 percent less last year than the previous year. The police report also said that 97 percent of the shooting victims in 2008 were black or Latino.

Despite the year-to-year drop in police gunfire, over the weekend, three officers fatally shot a teenager in Queens 11 times. Police said they spotted 18-year-old Dashawn Vasconcellos and two others leave a city park after hours and a chase ensued. The officers fired 14 rounds after they said Vasconcellos pointed a 9mm semiautomatic pistol at them.

Meanwhile, the NYCLU also says that the NYPD is on track to stop a record number of New Yorkers this year, according to new stop-and-frisk data. The organization says if the current pace continues, 535,000 innocent New Yorkers will have been stopped and interrogated by police by the year’s end.

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Filed under Activism, Criminal Justice, Law, NYC, Race

Despite record homicide-low, many murder trials seen in Brooklyn Court

A flurry of low-profile murder cases have been congesting the Brooklyn State Supreme Court in recent weeks, The New York Times reports. But it quickly points out that this happens every once in a while—in fact, three times a year—at the start of the year, in September after summer vacation and in the months preceding the holidays.

The Times offers an interesting glimpse into the world of the courtroom trial (or many in this case) long after the headlines about the latest murder in the city’s tabloids have disappeared. In fact, many of the cases in Brooklyn’s criminal court on Jay Street never were in the newspapers to begin with. The article states:

By and large, these were not the sort of trials that gain wide public notice or have multiple books written about them. They were quieter cases. Still, violence had occurred. People were dead.

“People were dead.” This definitely sticks with you for a moment. The Brooklyn district attorney’s office has completed 51 murder trials this year. That’s 51 people who were murdered. And except for the families of the victim or the defendant, no one pays attention to these trials. That’s why The Times’ piece is so good. It offers a quick snapshot into one day at the court and puts some names and faces to the statistics, the record-lows and the unnamed numbers of people affected by the loss of life.

While rather morbid, The Times has also put together an interactive city map that shows all the homicides since 2003 (each geo-tagged) and allows the reader the ability to break down the statistics visually. It’s definitely worth a look.

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Filed under Criminal Justice, NYC