Refusing a “Get out of Jail Free” Card – When Pardon’s Aren’t Accepted

Anyone who has ever been arrested probably wishes, like the game of Monopoly, that there was such thing as a “get out of Jail free” card to magically grant them another chance at a crime free life. While that idea seems too good to be true, such a thing does exist as clemency in the form of a pardon.


Photo by: The White House

Clemency is defined as: mercy or lenience, and when used in legal terms it can be defined as having mercy or leniency regarding criminal punishments or the severity of them. According to clemency statistics from the United States Department of Justice, there are four different petitions that can be granted: Respites, remissions, commutation, or pardons.

• Respite. A respite is not a forgiveness of a crime; it is merely an issuance of extra time until the carrying out of their sentence. One of the instances of when this type of clemency would arise is when someone is on death row and is hoping to get life in prison instead. They would file a petition for a respite to hold off the day of their execution until they’ve had more time for their appeal for another type of clemency such as a remission or pardon to be granted.

• Remission. Remissions are used to remove or relieve a person from a legal obligation they may have such as a fine or restitution.

• Commutation. A commutation reduces the punishment for a crime. Someone who may have been convicted of a crime and given a sentence may petition for commutation either to have their sentence reduced or removed all together. If a sentence is completely removed, the person convicted will not serve the time behind bars but may still lose certain liberties such as owning a firearm or serving on a jury.

• One well known type of clemency is known as a pardon. A pardon is complete forgiveness of a crime. When a person receives a pardon for their crime, said crime is entirely erased from their criminal history. They are not required to serve time behind bars, pay a fine, or ever face any repercussions related to that crime including lost civil liberties. For the person pardoned, it is as though the crime never took place. Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution defines pardons as “. . . an act of grace, proceeding from the power entrusted with the execution of the laws, which exempts the individual, on whom it is bestowed, from the punishment the law inflicts for a crime has committed.” There are two different types of pardons.

o A full pardon which is complete legal and civil restoration to the convicted no strings attached; or

o A conditional pardon, which is a full pardon if the person agrees to something else in return. Failure to hold up there part of the deal would result in the pardon becoming void.

Power of a clean slate

Pardons are one of the more well-known types of clemency because it is a complete forgiveness of a crime, without the person serving any time or monetary restitution. A pardon could save a person from spending a lifetime behind bars – even to escape the death penalty. If the crime for which a pardon is requested is committed on a state level, only the governor of that state has the power to issue a pardon. If the crime is federal, the pardon must come from the very top – The President of the United States. According to the clemency statistics from the United States Department of Justice, our current president has granted seven of the 762 petitions for pardons he has received during his time in office. The previous president granted only 212 of the 3,395 petitions received during his eight years as commander in chief. Pardons, especially on a federal level are not granted easily, which makes it hard to understand why with the extraordinary opportunity for a second chance that the offer of a pardon would ever be refused.

Refusing a pardon

In 1830, two men, James Porter and George Wilson were found guilty of robbing and threatening the life of a U.S. postal carrier. They were both sentenced to death by hanging. James Porter was executed as planned. George Wilson however had friends in high places who begged the current president Andrew Jackson for clemency. President Jackson agreed, giving Wilson a full pardon for the crimes of which he was on death row for. Wilson would still have to serve prison time for other crimes, but he would not be executed and still have many years after prison to carry on with his life. Surprisingly however, Wilson refused the pardon.

Void if not accepted

You can’t force someone to consent to help; the same can be said for pardons. A pardon can be offered but it is void if the person to whom it is given won’t receive it. Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution states “ . . . A pardon is a deed, to the validity of which delivery is essential, and delivery is not complete without acceptance. It may then be rejected by the person to whom it is tendered; and if it be rejected, we have discovered no power in a court to force it on him.” While some individuals refuse pardons to protect themselves against self-incrimination, others may stubbornly refuse any government handout. Regardless of their reasons, pardons are only good if they are accepted. For more information on clemency regarding a specific case, contact an experienced attorney.