Nichole M. Forde, a federal inmate serving 27 years in prison for trafficking crack cocaine from Chicago to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, saw the list of politicians and presidential cronies who got clemency last week and lamented: are there people like me?
Ms Forde, 40, in prison for a decade now, has no connection to President Trump. No reality TV star has championed the story of their life, with their attempts to overcome sexual abuse, drug addiction, mental illness, teenage motherhood and homelessness.
Unlike many of those Mr. Trump pardoned in his last few weeks in office, she says she did bad things and deserved to be punished. But she also says she was helped during her time behind bars by counseling on PTSD and vocational classes that teach her plumbing.
His request for clemency has languished at the Ministry of Justice for four years. She just marked her ninth Christmas as an inmate, this time in an Illinois minimum-security camp, with no fence preventing her from walking away.
“I am sad that not everyone is entitled to leniency,” Ms. Forde wrote in an interview conducted through the Bureau of Prisons messaging system. “I’m just as likely to hit a Powerball number as I am getting mercy.”
Mr Trump used the power of his office last week to grant clemency to dozens of people, including his daughter’s stepfather, his former campaign manager and a longtime friend. He showed his mercy to three Republican congressmen, one of whom pleaded guilty to theft of campaign funds for personal gain, a second convicted of securities fraud and a third serving a sentence of 10 years after having been convicted of fraud and money laundering. Other pardoned included two allies who were found guilty of lying to the FBI during the Russia investigation.
He also pardoned four Blackwater private security contractors convicted of a Baghdad massacre who have ties to two Trump allies, including the Education Secretary.
The vast majority of people he granted pardons or commutations had a personal or political connection to the White House, and only seven were recommended by the government’s forgiveness advocate, according to one. Professor at Harvard University that follows the process.
While the regulation can be waived, the government normally only considers pardons for people who have served at least five years in prison, a rule that has not been enforced for a number of Mr. Trump’s cohorts.
More than 14,000 federally convicted people are waiting to be informed of their requests for clemency.
Many of those who have applied are unlikely to obtain leniency under any circumstances. But those who have sentences they deem excessive and people who have shown remorse and changed their lives in prison hope for mercy.
“We just hope the president grants grace to people who are not rich, wealthy and well connected – and there are certainly thousands,” said Holly Harris, a Republican who has worked with Mr. Trump on reforms. . head of the Justice Action Network, a bipartisan criminal justice reform organization. “There is certainly still time for the president to use this extraordinary power to help people who are really in trouble.
Among the candidates is Reality Winner, 29, the government translator who leaked a secret document showing Russia hacked into U.S. electoral systems.
Ferrell D. Scott, 57, is hoping the president will consider his petition, which shows he is serving a life sentence for trafficking marijuana, a sentence even the federal prosecutor who ruled his case said he did not deserve.
John R. Knock, 73, also sentenced to life for non-violent marijuana, was previously rejected by President Barack Obama but tried again with Mr. Trump. He has been in prison since 1996.
“It’s kind of like a competition instead of a legal process,” said Mr. Knock’s sister Beth Curtis, who has argued on behalf of her brother and others serving life sentences for crimes. marijuana charges. “It’s a cronyism system.”
Kevin Ring, a conservative Republican who does not support Mr Trump and is chairman of a criminal justice reform group called FAMM, said he was optimistic Mr Trump would always consider the type of people his group argues, like Ms. Forde, who was convicted as a career offender.
“There will be scrapers mixed in with the ones that look good,” said Mr. Ring, himself a former federal inmate.
Using the power of leniency strictly on “blatantly political” cases would harm the institution, Ring said.
While more pardons are expected in the coming weeks, criminal justice activists are not encouraged by Mr. Trump’s track record so far. Jack Goldsmith, the Harvard professor who analyzed Mr. Trump’s leniency, says the president “is stingy” with his power of forgiveness, “even if he abuses it”.
A study last month by the Pew Research Center showed that in November, Mr. Trump granted less clemency than any other president in modern history. The last group of pardons now places him second behind George HW Bush. Prior to this latest batch of pardons and commutations, Mr. Trump had granted leniency to less than half of 1% of the more than 10,000 people who applied to him until the end of fiscal 2020, which is ended September 30. according to the study.
The Justice Department’s pardon prosecutor’s office declined to comment, citing its policy of not granting interviews.
After commuting his sentence in 2018, Mr Trump in August pardoned Alice Johnson, who had served 22 years for distributing cocaine and money laundering. The pardon came after Ms Johnson publicly congratulated the president and spoke at the Republican National Convention.
President Trump has discussed possible pardons that could test the limits of his constitutional power to nullify criminal liability. Here are some details about his ability to forgive.
- Can a president issue potential pardons before any charge or conviction? Yes. In Ex parte Garland, an 1866 case involving a former Confederate Senator who had been pardoned by President Andrew Johnson, the Supreme Court said that the power of pardon “extends to all known offenses of the law and can be exercised at any time after its commission, either before legal proceedings are instituted, or during their hanging, or after conviction and trial. It is unusual for a president to issue a potential pardon before charges are laid, but there are examples, perhaps President Gerald R. Ford’s most famous 1974 pardon from Richard M. Nixon for the prevent prosecution after the Watergate scandal.
- Can a president forgive his relatives and close allies? Yes. The Constitution does not prohibit pardons that raise the appearance of personal interest or a conflict of interest, even if they may cause political backlash and public shame. In 2000, shortly before leaving office, President Bill Clinton issued a series of controversial pardons, including to his half-brother, Roger Clinton, for a cocaine conviction in 1985 for which he had served about a year of prison, and Susan H. McDougal, a former Clinton business partner who had been jailed in connection with the Whitewater Inquiry.
- Can a president grant a general pardon? This is not clear. Usually, pardons are worded in a way that specifically describes the crimes or sets of activities to which they apply. There is little precedent establishing to what extent a pardon can be used to instead exclude criminal liability for anything and everything.
- Can a president forgive himself? This is not clear. There is no definitive answer as no president has ever tried to forgive himself and has been sued anyway. As a result, there has never been a case that gave the Supreme Court a chance to resolve the issue. In the absence of any precedent for scrutiny, legal thinkers are divided on the issue.
- Find more answers here.
She has become an important figure in the plea for leniency and is seen as someone who has the President’s ear.
Ms Johnson’s lawyer Brittany K. Barnett would like to see Mr Trump offer leniency to those serving life sentences for marijuana.
“Anyone who is serving their life today under yesterday’s drug laws, to me that’s an incredibly convincing category of people who truly deserve mercy,” she said.
She also represents Mr. Scott, who is in a maximum security prison in Texas, not because of the nature of his crime, but because of the length of his sentence. After rejecting a plea deal that would have sent him to jail for 12 years, he was convicted of transporting marijuana in 2007 and sentenced to life.
“You would think that selling marijuana is the worst thing in the world, because I got a life sentence for it,” he said in a letter to USA Today last year. “But when I die and the Pearly Gates are told that the worst thing I did was sell weed to take care of me and my family, I like my chances. My good attributes far outweigh the bad. “
Patrick M. Megaro, Florida appeals lawyer, has a petition pending for his client, Corvain T. Cooper, who is serving a life sentence under the “three strokes” law, even though two of his previous convictions were reduced to crimes. He wrote a letter to Mr. Trump, pleading his case and criticizing Mr. Obama for denying Mr. Cooper’s allegation.
“Then he’s going to forgive those friends,” Mr. Megaro said of Mr. Trump.
Ms Forde said she wanted the pardon requests to be less political and more based on recommendations from correctional officers.
Court records show that the judge gave Ms Forde the maximum sentence – 327 months – even though the prosecutor asked for less and admitted in court that she did not have “the longest criminal record, this court. has certainly seen worse ”.
Under a penal reform law signed by Mr. Trump, today’s drug offenders would not face such long sentences, but the law has not been made retroactive to those already in jail , stressed Ms. Forde. “Trump has the power to do it TODAY if he wants to,” she wrote.
“People change with age and circumstances,” she says. “I think 10 years is enough for what I did.”