ORLANDO – What it all comes down to, said Vikki Hankins, is not the law, but the heart and the emotions that flow from it.
“When it comes to a clemency,” she said, “it’s based purely on forgiveness. It’s simply showing remorse for what you have done.”
That was the challenge Hankins faced in 2000, when, after a decade in federal prison on a drug charge, she applied for a clemency from President Bill Clinton.
She missed the deadline to get the request submitted to the president, and it was resubmitted to Clinton’s successor, President George W. Bush. Her request was turned down, and Hankins spent an additional eight years in federal prison as a result.
“I didn’t get it,” she said. “I was denied under Bush. That was heartbreaking.”
Today, Hankins has been out of prison for three years, and now runs her own business, A4Jpublishing, and is the spokeswoman for an organization called Advocate4Justice, which works on behalf of the rights of inmates, state and federal prisoners, and convicted felons who are trying to reintegrate into society.
Hankins recalled the emotional turmoil she underwent in 2001 when her clemency request was rejected, after she learned about a report by ProPublica which indicates that white criminals who seek a presidential pardon over the past decade have been four times as likely to get one as minorities.
ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom based in Manhattan, which produces investigate reports. It was established in October 2007 and began publishing in June 2008.
The report by Dafna Linzer and Jennifer LaFleur is based on an examination of past clemency cases, which the authors said reveals that “Blacks have had the poorest chance of receiving the president’s ultimate act of mercy, according to an analysis of previously unreleased records and related data.”
ProPublica took a look at “what happened after President George W. Bush decided at the beginning of his first term to rely almost entirely on the recommendations made by career lawyers in the Office of the Pardon Attorney,” the article notes. “The office was given wide latitude to apply subjective standards, including judgments about the ‘attitude’ and the marital and financial stability of applicants. No two pardon cases match up perfectly, but records reveal repeated instances in which white applicants won pardons with transgressions on their records similar to those of blacks and other minorities who were denied. “
Hankins said the report didn’t surprise her, because she knows from personal experience what it’s like to go through this process – and what it felt like to be a black woman from the South, incarcerated in federal prison on a drug dealing charge, and being denied a request for clemency despite having already served more than a decade behind bars.
“There was a lot of racism in those clemencies,” she said.
Hankins was sentenced to 23 years in federal prison for having sold crack cocaine in Florida. Civil rights activists have long complained that sentences like this one, for dealing crack cocaine, were racially discriminatory because people convicted of selling powdered cocaine received much lighter sentences.
Those disproportionately longer sentences were mandated by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for crack cocaine. Since 1986, there has been a five-year minimum sentence for trafficking 500 grams of powdered cocaine, while that same sentence could be imposed for possession of five grams of crack cocaine.
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created the disparity. It reflected Congress’s view that crack cocaine was a more dangerous and harmful drug than powder cocaine. That may have been partly the result of the well publicized death of Leonard “Len” Bias on June 19, 1986, a first team All-American college basketball player selected by the Boston Celtics as the second overall pick in the 1986 NBA Draft. He died from cardiac arrhythmia induced by a cocaine overdose.
By the mid-1990s, though, many activists were complaining loudly that the sentencing laws were unfair and discriminatory. The laws were not changed until last year.
The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 was signed into law by President Obama last August. It reduces the disparity between U.S. federal criminal penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses from a 100:1 ratio to an 18:1 ratio, based on the number of grams of cocaine in possession. The law also eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine.
By 2000, though, Hankins was looking at an eventual release date of 2013, and prior to learning about presidential clemencies, she had few options left for an early release.
“I had never heard of clemency before,” she said. “I had exhausted all of my efforts to get my sentence reduced. Then I learned of clemency.”
A clemency refers to the forgiveness of a crime or the cancellation of the penalty associated with it. In the United States, the Constitution grants the power of a pardon to the president.
Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution states that the President “shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.” All federal pardon petitions are addressed to the President, who can grant or deny it. Applications for pardons are usually referred for review and recommendation by the Office of the Pardon Attorney, which is under the U.S. Department of Justice.
Hankins said she used the law library at the federal prison where she was incarcerated to research the clemency process.
“I came to understand, most generally you’d be able to get a clemency if you had the support of members of Congress and your family and friends and church back home,” she said.
Hankin’s request did attract support from congressmen representing California and Louisiana, and her family and friends in Crescent City, Florida did write letters on her behalf. She began to get hopeful that it would happen.
But what she didn’t anticipate was that she would miss the deadline for submitting her request to President Bill Clinton, who was elected in 1992 and re-elected in 1996. In 2000, he was serving his final year in office, and in the presidential campaign that year, voters elected Texas Gov. George W. Bush to be his successor.
“I learned about clemency too late,” Hankins said. “Bill Clinton was on the way out and George Bush was on his way in. Bill Clinton did release some people – oh, God, do I remember that. But I got mine in there too late. I do believe that if Bill Clinton had gotten my petition and heard my story, I would have been out in 2000.”
Hankins did attract the interest of an attorney from Iowa, who was representing an inmate at the same federal prison she was at. He agreed to help Hankins file her clemency request to the incoming president.
“He put a document together,” she said. “He flew out to the prison to meet me. I was at a federal prison in Texas at the time.”
Based on the hard work this attorney did, she said, “I had every reason to believe I would get out.”
But it didn’t happen. To this day, Hankins still believes her race and the drug charges she got convicted of played a role in her clemency request being denied. She’s particularly convinced of this because of someone who did get a pardon from President Bush: I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.
Libby, who is white, was an advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney during Bush’s administration. In October 2005, he was indicted by a federal grand jury in connection with the investigation of the leak of the covert identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson. He was later convicted of a felony in a federal trial, United States v. Libby. The jury convicted Libby of one count of obstruction of justice, two counts of perjury, and one of the counts of making false statements. On June 5, 2007, the presiding trial judge, Reggie B. Walton, sentenced Libby to 30 months in federal prison.
On July 2, 2007, President Bush commuted Libby’s 30-month prison sentence. At the time he made this decision, Bush said, “I am commuting the portion of Mr. Libby’s sentence that required him to spend thirty months in prison. My decision to commute his prison sentence leaves in place a harsh punishment for Mr. Libby. The reputation he gained through his years of public service and professional work in the legal community is forever damaged.”
Hankins said she never forget about this well-publicized decision.
“Scooter Libby never hit prison walls,” she said. “He didn’t hit federal grounds and then apply for a pardon through the warden.
“And that’s,” she added, “when I started raising Hell.”
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