When a radio host asked Matt Bevin, the former governor of Kentucky, why he had pardoned a man convicted of raping a child, Mr. Bevin’s first response was, “Which one?”
“Because there were a couple of people that were accused of that whose sentences I commuted,” he said.
Mr. Bevin, a Republican, had already been criticized for issuing more than 600 pardons and sentence reductions just before he left office on Dec. 10, including to men who were convicted of murder and rape, and one whose family had supported his campaign.
But the firestorm grew worse the more Mr. Bevin spoke, as he sought to justify his actions. He claimed that a young girl could not have been raped by a man he freed because her hymen was intact — an assertion experts rejected as proof of the man’s innocence.
While the pardons issued by Mr. Bevin may be as unique as his brash governing style, he is far from the first governor to face a backlash over pardons. They can be politically risky and are issued often as governors are on their way out the door, either at the end of their political term or after an election loss.
Mark Osler, a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, said he worried that what he viewed as several poor decisions by Mr. Bevin would overshadow the benefits that pardons can have on prisoners and society.
“I think it’s important to call Bevin out on the bad choices he made, but I think it’s important to recognize that he made hundreds of good choices, too,” said Professor Osler, who describes himself as an advocate for clemency.
“The way we misuse clemency the most is by not using it,” he added.
Here are other governors whose pardons have prompted protests:
Haley Barbour, Mississippi
Four men serving life sentences were pardoned after working at the governor’s mansion.
On his last day as governor in 2012, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi issued pardons to four men who had been convicted of murder and sent to work at his mansion through a prison program. The pardons, which were among 193 granted by Mr. Barbour that day, elicited outrage and claims that the governor had unfairly evaluated the cases of the four men, all of whom were serving life sentences. Some called for the governor’s clemency powers to be subjected to additional oversight.
The furor over the pardons lasted for months, as did a court challenge from the state’s attorney general.
Mr. Barbour, a Republican, had issued 10 times as many pardons as his four predecessors combined. But none drew headlines like those he gave to the men who worked at his mansion while they were incarcerated.
Ultimately, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 that it could not interfere with Mr. Barbour’s pardoning authority, and the pardons were upheld.
Among the 203 full pardons Mr. Barbour issued over two terms, many went to people who had already completed their sentences. More than a dozen were issued to people convicted of murder, and Mr. Barbour also pardoned Brett Favre’s brother, who had killed a friend in a drunken-driving crash. Like in Mr. Bevin’s case, some victims’ families complained that they had not been consulted beforehand.
Jerry Brown, California
A court blocked some pardons that would have halted deportations.
Jerry Brown, the Democratic former governor of California, drew President Trump’s ire last year by pardoning five immigrants who had been convicted of various crimes and were set to be deported.
“Is this really what the great people of California want?” Mr. Trump asked on Twitter at the time.
Mr. Brown granted more than 1,000 pardons between 2011 and 2019, but several commutations were halted last year by the California Supreme Court in what amounted to a rare rebuke of executive power. While the justices did not explain their decisions, they were widely interpreted as a determination that Mr. Brown had abused his power.
One of the pardons the court blocked was for Borey Ai, a Cambodian refugee who had been convicted of murder in 1997 for killing a woman when he was 14, The Associated Press reported. He was released after 19 years, but was facing deportation when Mr. Brown tried to pardon him, effectively stopping his pending deportation.
The court’s ruling in December 2018, blocking the pardon, kept him subject to deportation. In November of this year, Mr. Ai said at a rally that he had been detained by immigration authorities for 18 months after he was released from prison and that he could be deported at any time, The A.P. reported.
Mike Huckabee, Arkansas
Nine years after a man was pardoned, he killed four police officers.
The political peril of pardons burst into full view in 2009 when a man pardoned by Mike Huckabee, the Republican former governor of Arkansas, walked into a coffee shop near Tacoma, Wash., and fatally shot four police officers.
The man, Maurice Clemmons, was later shot and killed by a police officer after a manhunt. But the case was used to criticize Mr. Huckabee, who was then a Fox News contributor and would later run for president. As governor, he issued three times as many pardons and commutations as the three preceding governors combined.
Mr. Clemmons had been convicted of burglary and robbery and was not eligible for parole until 2021 when Mr. Huckabee commuted his sentence, allowing him to get out of prison on parole. But there were factors besides Mr. Huckabee’s commutation that led to outrage over Mr. Clemmons’s crime. Mr. Clemmons was given parole after violating it once, and when he killed the four officers, he had pending felony charges for assaulting police officers and raping a child.
Paul LePage, Maine
A governor kept his pardons secret.
In Maine, former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, pardoned 112 people in eight years but both the number and names of people pardoned were kept hidden until The Associated Press obtained them using a freedom of information law.
Among those on the pardon list: the grandson of Mr. LePage’s mentor and a former Republican state lawmaker.
Jeff Pierce, the former lawmaker, was convicted of felony drug trafficking in 1983 and later admitted to illegally hunting with firearms, according to Maine Public Radio. Among those pardoned by Mr. LePage were a woman convicted of embezzling thousands of dollars from a county sheriff’s department and the grandson of a man who sheltered Mr. LePage when he ran away from home as a child, The A.P. reported. That man had been convicted of operating under the influence and driving with a suspended or revoked license.
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