ProPublica

  • March 23, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    As scrutiny of so-called “stand your ground” laws builds in the aftermath of the killing of Florida youngster Trayvon Martin, President Obama weighed in today calling Martin’s death a tragedy.

    After his announcement of the nomination of Dr. Jim Kim to lead the World Bank, Obama was asked about the young African American’s death at the hands of a so-called neighborhood watchman in Sanford, Fla.

    Obama said, “I can only imagine what these parents are going through. And when I think about this boy, I think about my own kids. And I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this, and that everybody pulls together – federal, state and local – to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened.”

    The president added, “But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. And I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and that we’re going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.”

    Obama noted, that he could not elaborate at much greater length; the Department of Justice had opened an investigation into the matter earlier this week. Pressure has been building for the federal government to take action because Florida officials have not arrested the shooter, George Zimmerman, because of the state’s expansive law that provides greater protection to those who claim self-defense in using deadly force. The Florida Conference of NAACP Branches had urged the federal government to get involved, saying it had no confidence in Florida officials to handle the matter.

  • December 12, 2011
    Guest Post

    By Samuel Morison, a criminal defense attorney in Washington, D.C., and a former staff attorney at the Office of the Pardon Attorney.


    For most of this country’s history, the practice of executive clemency has quietly functioned as an ancillary feature of the criminal justice system, without attracting much attention.  The purpose of the pardon power, as the Founders envisioned it, was to fill the inevitable gaps in the just and humane infliction of punishment.  In addition to being a failsafe to correct injustices that escaped judicial scrutiny, executive clemency was conceived as an equitable vehicle for bestowing legal “forgiveness” in appropriate cases.  As the Supreme Court observed in Ex Parte Grossman, “[t]he administration of justice … is not necessarily always wise or certainly considerate of circumstances which may properly mitigate guilt.”  Hence, “[e]xecutive clemency exists to afford relief from undue harshness or evident mistake in the operation or enforcement of the criminal law.”

    Beginning in the 1970’s, however, under the influence of the “new retributivism,” the prevailing rehabilitative paradigm began to collapse, along with the traditional practices of discretionary sentencing and parole.  In its place, we have witnessed the ascendance of determinate sentencing schemes, including strict mandatory minimum penalties for a broad array of offenses, most notably the distribution of illegal drugs.  However well intentioned, the rhetoric of retribution quickly degenerated into a crass endorsement of punitive incapacitation for its own sake, with little regard for what any particular offender actually deserves.  The result has been a burgeoning federal prison population of more than 200,000, coupled with thousands more ex-felons who labor under the burden of lifetime collateral disabilities.