, Derry, New Hampshire

November 25, 2011

The turkey escapes, but pardons aren't easy to get

About the Law
Andrew Myers

Every Thanksgiving, by tradition, the president of the United States pardons a turkey, saving it from the carving tray. Possibly one of the last unchallenged traditions of U.S. culture, the turkey pardon lives on despite partisan politics.

It's an easy news story for reporters and reminds us to take a break and to be thankful. However, getting an actual pardon, for a person with a conviction in the legal system, is no simple matter.

According to Black's Law Dictionary, a pardon is "an act of grace" exempting a person from the punishment the law inflicts for a crime of which she or he has been convicted. This is not the same as, but related to, the concept of commutation, which according to Black's is the "change of a punishment to one which is less severe."

Pardons are rare. The New York Times recently reported that since the end of fiscal year 2010, the Obama administration denied nearly 4,000 petitions, granting only 17. For those of us on the outside, there appears no rhyme or reason as to who gets a pardon.

One of those pardoned had been convicted on charges of cutting pennies down to the size of dimes and stuffing them into vending machines. Ronald Foster did this in the 1960s, then went on to serve honorably in Vietnam, to work for years and to raise a son in Pennsylvania.

However, when he went to get a gun permit, his past caught up to him. Through the years, he had forgotten that he was prosecuted by Secret Service and found guilty of a felony. He had admitted that while stationed at Camp LeJeune, N.C., he and others would cut down pennies and use them in the soda and cigarette machines. A pardon was granted.

One of the pardon petitions denied by the Obama administration was that of civil rights leader Marcus Garvey, imprisoned and deported to Jamaica in 1927.

New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch served his first six years in office without granting a single pardon. Then, in February 2011, 49-year-old Susan M. Winter of New Ipswich was granted a pardon. She had been convicted of felony escape from police in Nashua in 1982. Apparently, there was a scuffle in a parking lot and police handcuffed her. But she got away. It was felt that the pardon would help the mother of three find work.

Most notorious among pardons are those granted by presidents of both parties on their way out of the White House at the end of their terms. On the last day of his presidency, Jan. 20, 2001, Bill Clinton pardoned 140 people including "FALN" terrorists and billionaire campaign contributor Marc Rich.

President George H. W. Bush pardoned six Reagan administration officials accused and/or convicted in connection with the Iran-Contra scandal.

Thanksgiving is not a day for politics. It is a time to be grateful. So, happy Thanksgiving and let's all count our blessings.

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Andrew Myers of Derry has law offices in Derry and North Andover. He is a member of the American Association for Justice and the New Hampshire Trial Lawyers Association. Send questions to