Thursday, January 6, 2011

Pardon Me?

“Be good, be kind, be humane, and charitable; love your fellows; console the afflicted; pardon those who have done you wrong.” August words from the Russian novelist and playwright Maxim Gorky. We are taught from an early age to turn the other cheek and we should all strive to do this. But perhaps this gesture should be reserved for those who might receive at least a modicum of relief from such charity. You would think that, in this day and age, our politicians would have more important things to do than consider the pardoning of individuals who have been taking the big dirt nap for decades. I do not object to the act of pardoning a transgressor, but let’s take a look at the facts, or what we believe them to be.

Charles Crist, the Republican turned independent governor of Florida who left office earlier this week, was seeking perhaps one last grand gesture before relinquishing the reigns of power in Tallahassee. Governor Crist, who since 2007 had considered the pardoning of Jim Morrison, the former lead singer and factotum of the legendary band The Doors, finally asked the state’s Board of Executive Clemency to consider such a pardon. Unfortunately, Morrison died in Paris in July 1971 and remains dead nearly forty years later. Or does Governor Crist know something the rest of us don’t?

Two years before his death, during a concert in a Miami auditorium in March 1969, Morrison dropped his black leather pants and allegedly presented himself in flagrante delicto. The public outcry was immediate and intense and the local district attorney charged Morrison with a felony count of lewd and lascivious behavior along with more minor misdemeanor counts. Morrison eventually surrendered to the FBI (was this a federal offense?) and was subsequently tried in 1970, convicted only on the misdemeanor counts of profanity and indecent exposure, and sentenced to a monetary fine and six months in jail. He appealed his sentence and was released on bail. Not long after that he moved to Paris where he died before his appeal was heard. The conviction has stood for four decades.

In early December the Clemency Board acceded to the request by Governor Crist who, like many, including other members of the band, never believed Morrison had actually exposed himself. The Board voted unanimously to issue a pardon to the long dead Door a day after what would have been his 67th birthday. The pardon does not really address whether a “crime” was actually committed in the first place and this oversight has left a bad aftertaste for those who still believe Morrison was falsely charged. We can hope that Morrison may find a more peaceful rest as a result of Governor Crist’s largesse.

Not to be outdone, the former Democratic governor of New Mexico , Bill Richardson, who stepped down on New Year’s Day, considered as one of his last official acts a pardon for William Bonney (aka Henry McCarty, Henry Antrim, but best known as Billy the Kid) who died almost 130 years ago. One had to admit that Governor Richardson’s decision was fraught with more serious implications since Billy’s transgressions were slightly more serious than genitalia gone wild. Depending on your source of preference, Billy is alleged to have killed between 9 and 21 men, including three law enforcement officers, during his short life (he was gunned down by Sheriff Pat Garrett in July 1881 at the tender age of 21). The pardon under consideration was not for all of Billy’s alleged crimes. In fact, it was not so much a pardon as a belated amnesty from prosecution for the murder of the Lincoln County sheriff supposedly pledged by New Mexico territorial governor Lew Wallace in 1880 if Billy agreed to testify about other murders he had witnessed. Billy cooperated, yet the amnesty was never granted and Billy was eventually convicted of the sheriff’s murder and sentenced to be hanged. He escaped before the execution could be carried out, killing two deputies in the process. The entire question of the amnesty became moot when Garret shot and killed Billy a few months later.

Governor Richarson, unlike his Florida colleague, did not rely on the serious deliberations or good judgement of a state clemency board. Rather, he established a special website where any individual could go and register an opinion on whether a pardon/amnesty should be granted. Just over 800 individuals voted with a slight majority favoring the pardon. Richardson, in the final hours of his term in office, and citing inconclusive proof that Wallace had actually offered Billy amnesty, chose to ignore the supporters of amnesty and many historians by denying the amnesty/pardon. Old Billy, I am sure, does not care much one way or the other. But some good came out of this exercise. “It’s good for tourism,” Governor Richardson claimed. “It’s gotten great publicity for the state.” If he says so.

Governors Crist and Richardson remained true to that sage advice offered
by John Dryden in “The Conquest of Granada.” “Forgiveness to the injured does belong; But they ne’er pardon who have done wrong.” I know I sleep better knowing that justice has prevailed.

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