Obama has been parsimonious with his powers, granting pardons to just 148 people so far during his eight years in office—fewer than any two-term president in recent memory. George W. Bush pardoned 198 people, Bill Clinton pardoned 396 people, while Ronald Reagan pardoned 393 people.
Obama has excelled at commuting, or shortening sentences, with 1,176 people receiving commutations, including 395 people with life sentences. In December, Obama granted 153 commutations and 78 pardons on a single day, more than any president in U.S. history had ever done at one time.
Obama’s commutations of low level, non-violent drug offenders, places the soon-to-be ex-president head and shoulders above his former fellow Oval Office occupants, with Clinton granting just 61 commutations and Bush granting 11.
The question remaining is will Obama deviate from what has become his standard mode of operation and grant pardons to individuals who might cause public outrage, such as CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden or Assata Shakur who has believed to be living in Cuba under political asylum for decades after she was convicted of killing a New Jersey State Trooper 43 years ago.
Here are six folks whom activists believe should be pardoned:
Shakur was convicted of killing a New Jersey State Trooper 43 years ago. Born Joanne Chesimard, she was a leader in the Black Liberation Army. Shakur was serving a life sentence when she escaped from a New Jersey prison 1979.
Activists such as Angela Davis have argued that Shakur was prosecuted “under highly questionable circumstances.” The National Lawyers Guild, which represented Shakur in her final trial said five members of the 15-person all-white jury had personal connections to state troopers.
“The judge cut funding for additional expert defense testimony after medical testimony demonstrated that Ms. Shakur—who had no gunpowder residues on her fingers, and whose fingerprints were not found on any weapon at the crime scene—was shot with her hands up and suffered injury to a critical nerve in her right arm, making it anatomically impossible for her to fire a weapon,” the National Lawyers Guild said in a statement on a now shuttered Change.org petition to pardon Shakur.
More than a million people signed a petition asking Obama to pardon the former NSA contractor who revealed a massive U.S. intelligence surveillance operation to spy on Americans without a warrant.
Swowden has been granted asylum in Russia and faces the death penalty if convicted of stealing government secrets. But in a letter to Obama seeking a pardon for Snowden, Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Salil Shetty, secretary general of Amnesty International, and Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, all said Snowden was a “human rights hero” who had acted “to hold governments to account when power is abused” by turning the information over to journalists.
“As you well know, Snowden disclosed information to journalists revealing that the NSA had overstepped U.S. statutes, the Constitution, and international law by engaging in widespread, warrantless surveillance. In response, we’ve seen a global debate that has changed government policies and profoundly affected how people think about personal privacy,” the three leaders wrote.
It would be a major surprise if Obama pardoned Snowden. The White House doesn’t consider Snowden a whistleblower.
“I can’t pardon somebody who hasn’t gone before a court and presented themselves, so that’s not something that I would comment on at this point,” Obama aid when asked by German newspaper Der Spiegel whether he would pardon Snowden.
Experts believe Obama could issue a pre-emptive pardon for Snowden as some have urged him to do for his former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in case she is indicted for her e-mail scandal.
Shakur, the stepfather of the late rapper and actor Tupac Shakur, was the alleged ring leader of a group from the Black Liberation Army who is accused of robbing a Brink’s truck in Nanuet, New York, killing a Brink’s guard, seriously injuring another, and killing two Nyack officers during the escape.
Shakur was on the run for six years and was eventually convicted of racketeering for his actions and for helping Assata Shakur escape from prison. He is also believed to have been a target of the infamous FBI COINTELPRO, surveillance, infaltration and disruption plan for black revolutionaries.
Shakur has been imprisoned for over 30 years and has taken responsibility for his actions but has been denied parole eight times.
“This country is not the same country it was at the time of my conviction and I have lived long enough to understand the changes the country and I have undergone. I will always care about freedom and equality for black Americans, marginalized people and the lower classes in this country and abroad. The struggle was never about me, but for the will of the people,” Shakur wrote in a petition for his release that has been signed by almost 20,000 people.
Shakur’s case has even more urgency after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo commuted the sentence of the getaway driver in the robbery, a white woman named Judith Clark. The action doesn’t free Clark, who was sentenced to a minimum of 75 years in prison, but instead reduces her minimum sentence to 35 years and makes her eligible for parole now.
Clark was not involved in the violence that killed the police or the Brink’s guards but knew that she would be considered a part of the conspiracy if captured. Like Shakur, Clark has changed her life in prison. Shakur believes he deserve a shot at freedom,
“I cannot undo the violence and tragedy that took place more than thirty years ago. But for several decades while incarcerated I have dedicated myself to being a healer, spreading a message of reconciliation and justice, and playing a positive role in the lives of those I come into contact with, in and out of prison,” Shakur wrote.
But his supporters have always argued about the circumstances around his conviction, including whether there was sufficient evidence to prove he shot the officer, whether all potential witnesses testified and the racial makeup of the jury.
Abu-Jamal became a cause célèbre when he was facing execution and has even written books from prison.
Obama, however, does not have the authority to commute state convictions, according to the Department of Justice. Abu-Jamal would have to be pardoned by the governor or some other state panel.
Peltier is a Native American activist who has spent more than 40 years behind bars for killing two FBI agents during a shootout on a South Dakota reservation.
He has maintained his innocence. After two other members of the American Indian Movement were acquitted of the killings, Peltier’s supporters believes others were coerced into testifying that Peltier was the shooter.
They also say that ballistics evidence that would have cleared Peltier was withheld.
“The only thing I’m guilty of is struggling for my people. I didn’t kill those agents,” Peltier said in an Amnesty International video.
Manning, a former Army intelligence officer, was sentenced to 35 years for stealing secret military documents that detailed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and embarrassing diplomatic cables, and giving them to WikiLeaks.
Manning’s sentence is the longest ever for violating the Espionage Act. She is a transgender woman fighting to transition inside Leavenworth Military Penitentiary and twice tried to commit suicide last year. Many felt the harsh sentence was meant as a message to anyone else thinking of stealing sensitive information, especially after the devastating leak by Snowden.
Amnesty International has argued that some of the information Manning “disclosed pointed to potential human rights violations and breaches of international law.” One piece of information she revealed exposed a helicopter attack by the U.S. military in Baghdad that killed civilians. U.S. military members laughed about the deaths. Amnesty says there has never been an investigation into the incident.
Manning also felt that she was helping to spark an important debate about the cost of war but Amnesty International says she wasn’t allowed to introduce that evidence at trial.
“It was never my intention to hurt anyone. I only wanted to help people. When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others,” said Manning.
NBC News reported that Manning was on Obama’s shortlist for possible pardons.
Snowden, who is seeking a pardon himself, begged Obama on Twitter to pardon Manning.
The founder of WikiLeaks said he would submit himself to U.S. extradition if Manning were granted clemency. More than 100,000 people signed a petition asking for Manning to be pardoned.
“I have more hope right now than I have the entire time since she was sentenced,” said Manning’s aunt, Deborah Manning, NBC News reported. “I do think it’s the last hope for a while.”
President-elect Donald Trump has threatened to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, build a wall on the Mexican border and possibly force Muslims to join a registry.
As inauguration day grows closer, some are urging Obama to pardon undocumented immigrants. According to experts, Obama could pardon undocumented immigrants for a variety of crimes such as overstaying a visa and crossing the border illegally.
The pardon would not grant undocumented immigrants citizenship, only Congress can do that, but it could help put them on a path to citizenship.
There is precedent. Jimmy Carter pardoned everyone who had avoided the draft for the Vietnam War, and after the Civil War, Andrew Johnson pardoned everyone who had fought for the Confederacy.
Obama, faced with a recalcitrant Congress who refused to act on immigration, used his executive authority to create Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals which grants young people who were brought to the country illegally by their parents, a work permit and two-year deferral on deportation.
With Trump’s harsh rhetoric about undocumented immigrants, many worry he would immediately reverse Obama’s executive order.
Reps. Luis Gutierrez, Lucille Roybal-Allard and Zoe Lofgren sent Obama a letter asking him to grant a pardon for current and future immigration violators covered under DACA.
“There is a long line of cases that indicate that the pardon power of the executive is not reviewable by the other two branches of government so we urge the president to provide security to these young people,” Lofgren said during a press conference, BuzzFeed reported.
The White House released a statement to the news outlet saying they did not have the power to pardon undocumented immigrants.
“The president takes the executive clemency power seriously. As a general matter, we do not comment on the likelihood of whether a specific pardon may be granted, should one be requested,” a White House official said. “We note that the clemency power could not give legal status to any undocumented individual. As we have repeatedly said for years, only Congress can create legal status for undocumented individuals.”
Peter L. Markowitz. a professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, wrote in the New York Times that Obama, who has deported 2.5 million people, more than any previous U.S. president, has the authority.
“There is one area, however, where the president’s unilateral ability to forgo punishment is uncontested and supported by over a hundred years of Supreme Court precedent: the pardon power. It has been consistently interpreted to include the power to grant broad amnesties from prosecution to large groups when the president deems it in the public interest,” Markowitz wrote.
“A pardon could not achieve everything the deferred deportation program aspired to — notably, it could not deliver work permits. However, it has a certain operational elegance to it that would avoid many of the political battles surrounding the deferral program. No application process would be necessary. A pardon becomes immediately effective upon issuance by a president,” he added.