Governor Deval Patrick, who was battered early in his political career by accusations that he would be soft on crime, said Thursday that as he enters his final months in office he is prepared to grant the first pardons of his tenure.
He is considering the cases of three men who have all been out of prison 15 to 25 years and have had clean records for decades, according to records filed with the Advisory Board of Pardons. Two of the three have drug records, and one was convicted of assault.
“I’m ready, and I think the Governor’s Council, which has to approve them, is ready, within bounds,” Patrick said during his monthly appearance on WGBH-FM, Boston Public Radio.
A state advisory board has asked him to pardon the men, which effectively would expunge their records.
If any of the pardons are granted, they would be the first since 2002, when acting Governor Jane Swift pardoned seven people whose records included offenses such as marijuana possession, drug dealing, check forgery, and driving with a suspended license. Her successor, Republican Governor Mitt Romney, issued no pardons or commutations (a separate action that allows early release from prison), a fact he proclaimed proudly as he sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.
For Patrick, who swept into office in 2007 as a liberal Democrat and a former staff lawyer of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the pardons would come when there is less risk of political blowback, say political analysts.
Patrick is leaving office in January and has said he will enter the private sector.
“It would almost seem cruel and insensitive for a governor to go through an entire term and never reconsider decisions that may have in the long run appeared to be unjust and overly harsh,” said Jeffrey M. Berry, professor of political science at Tufts University. “These sound like very safe pardons and ones that are unlikely to create any kind of controversy. These are not bold steps designed to make a judgment on the judicial system.”
During the 2006 governor’s race, Patrick was attacked by his Republican opponent, Kerry Healey, for writing letters to the Parole Board seeking the release of Benjamin LaGuer, a convicted rapist serving a life sentence. He was not released.
Healey ran a hard-hitting television ad highlighting a case Patrick won as a Legal Defense Fund lawyer in 1985, when he successfully halted the execution of Carl Ray Songer, who was convicted of murdering a Florida state trooper. That case had provoked an outcry in Florida and anger from the trooper’s family.
But among advocates for prisoners’ rights and critics of mandatory sentences for drug offenses, there was hope that Patrick’s tenure would usher in more pardons and commutations.
During his first year in office, the Advisory Board of Appeals received 131 petitions for commutations and pardons. That was more than twice as many as the board received in 2006, during Romney’s last year in office.
In the ensuing years, the Advisory Board gave the governor one recommendation for a commutation and none for pardons. He rejected the commutation.
In his interview Thursday with WGBH, Patrick said that he once considered granting pardons to an entire class of convicts serving time for nonviolent drug offenses but found it was too difficult to pinpoint them since they were tangled up in other, more serious legal issues.
By 2013, the number of petitions filed with the board fell to 48. People simply stopped expecting that Patrick would grant a pardon, said Representative Russell Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat.
“I haven’t even gotten a request from a constituent on behalf of a family member to be pardoned,” he said. “You go through almost three terms . . . and it’s not happening. You move on to other things.”
If Patrick agrees to pardon the men, his recommendations will go to the Governor’s Council, which will vote on whether to approve them.
Jeffrey Snyder, a 43-year-old cancer survivor living in Sheffield with his wife and teenage daughter, served two years in the Berkshire House of Correction after he was arrested for selling a small bag of marijuana when he was a 17-year-old high school senior. The Advisory Board described the sentence as “very harsh.”
After his release, Snyder was never arrested again, but his record has kept him from pursuing his dream job as a high school sports coach.
“I’d like to vote,” Snyder said during his hearing for a pardon. “I’ve never had the opportunity to vote.”
Edem Seth Amet, a 39-year-old Liberian man, was convicted of selling crack cocaine in 1995 to a confidential police informant. His record means he is ineligible to become a US citizen, and though he can work in the country legally, he harbors fears of deportation.
True-See Allah, 44, is the only person seeking a pardon for a violent offense. Allah, now a Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office employee who helps inmates make the transition from jail to freedom, was convicted in 1991 of armed assault with intent to murder for his role in the shooting of a man he thought was a gang rival. The victim was left paralyzed.
After Allah was released in 1998, he devoted himself to steering drug addicts and criminals on Boston streets to the Nation of Islam. His work was so effective, he quickly drew the respect of city leaders, police, and prosecutors. Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, whose office prosecuted Allah before Conley’s tenure, even wrote a letter supporting his pardon.
It is unclear if any pardons are imminent. Patrick declined to comment beyond his statements on the radio. The board is also holding hearings for inmates seeking early release, but has not made any recommendations to Patrick.
Earlier this year, Patrick changed the guidelines for commutations and pardon petitions to make it easier for convicts to be eligible. Before, a petitioner’s record had to be clean for 15 years in felony cases and 10 years in misdemeanor cases to be eligible. That time was reduced to 10 years for felonies and five years for misdemeanors.