State sets up process for reviewing clemency applications

  • By Becky Bohrer
  • Thursday, January 25, 2018 10:32pm
  • News

JUNEAU — Those with criminal records who want leniency or forgiveness for their legal troubles have sent pleas for a fresh start to Alaska’s parole board for years, hoping to get the attention of the state’s governor.

But for more than a decade and through three Alaska governors, those clemency requests — now numbering 274 — have sat in limbo, as the state wrestled with establishing a review process following fallout from pardons by former Gov. Frank Murkowski that turned the normally compassionate act into a thornier proposition.

Cindy Strout, past president of the Alaska Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said she sometimes gets calls from individuals asking about the clemency process, which she said is not widely used, mostly because it carries political ramifications.

“I basically have told people, I won’t say it’s a hopeless proposition but whatever next to hopeless is, in terms of getting something like that,” she said.

Now, Gov. Bill Walker has laid out the review process for applicants it plans to use, which tracks with a 2007 law intended to mitigate what lawmakers then saw as errors committed by Murkowski.

In the waning days of his administration in 2006, Murkowski pardoned the son of a state worker who was charged with theft. The Anchorage Daily News reported Ryan Sargento was charged in 2010 in the shooting death of another man but reported there was no indication the death might have been avoided had the pardon not been granted. Pardons do not erase or expunge a conviction, according to the state.

Strout is representing Sargento in seeking post-conviction relief of his murder sentence. She said Sargento won’t seek a pardon in that case.

Murkowski also pardoned a company convicted of criminally negligent homicide in the death of one of its workers, who was killed in an avalanche in 1999. The worker’s family learned of the pardon from a reporter.

The latter incident prompted the 2007 law, sponsored by former state Rep. Ralph Samuels, a Republican. It calls for parole board investigations of anyone a governor considers granting clemency and for notification of victims, the Department of Law and the office of victims’ rights. The victim notification requirement pertains to more serious crimes. It also calls for the governor to wait at least 120 days after notification is given.

Samuels told The Associated Press Thursday his thinking behind the bill was that a governor “better have a damn good reason to do this, because you’re not going to go in at midnight and not have to face the music.”

Though the law passed more than 10 years ago, Govs. Sarah Palin, Sean Parnell and even Walker didn’t consider any clemency requests.

Jeff Edwards, the parole board’s executive director, said the law wasn’t specific on how the program should be structured. The program has been characterized as being under review since 2007, according to Walker’s office.

The state ombudsman’s office, in a 2017 report, said the lack of a clear process created confusion about responsibility for clemency applications. While there is no right to receive any clemency, citizens have the right to at least ask for clemency consideration, the report says.

Since the law change, no governor had notified the board that he or she was considering granting clemency so the board has had no duty to investigate requests that came in, according to the report.

When the board directly received applications, “it filed them away and provided no notice to the governor when a clemency request was received,” the report stated.

Edwards said governors had been provided logs, with details such as the type of clemency being requested and the crime that was committed. He could not say with what frequency those were provided.

More recently, and in working with the ombudsman to address that office’s concerns, all information the parole board receives is sent to the governor, he said.

Walker’s office said that in updating the clemency process, it reviewed all 274 requests — basic forms that ask why an individual wants clemency — but decided it needed more information.

All will be asked to complete more extensive, new applications that ask for such things as job, education and criminal histories and community engagement if they wish to continue pursuing clemency.

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