Thursday, June 7, 2018

Trump turns pardon into game of fame -- June 7, 2018 column


The joyous moment Alice Marie Johnson embraced her family, hours after President Donald Trump commuted her life sentence, was heartwarming.

But the latest presidential pardon also sent a disturbing message.

If you want a Get Out of Jail Free card from this president, it’s best to be a celebrity or find one to plead for your release. Trump has turned clemency into more of a game of fame than a test of fairness.

Americans believe in second chances, but they shouldn’t be granted because of who you know or how famous you are.

Had Kim Kardashian West not seen a video on the Internet about Johnson’s plight and had the reality TV star not gone to the White House to lobby for Johnson’s release, 

Johnson would still be behind bars. No matter that she’s a 63-year-old great-grandmother or how persuasive her rehabilitation in prison.

The Constitution gives the president broad pardon power, and all presidents use it. President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of nearly 2,000 federal offenders. But clemency does not make the system more just.

It helps a select few while leaving tens of thousands also with compelling stories to languish in prison.

Trump reportedly is “obsessed” with pardons. He has pardoned such famous offenders as former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for his anti-immigrant policies in Arizona; conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, and black boxing legend Jack Johnson.

He has mentioned a possible pardon for his long-time friend Martha Stewart, who served five months in federal prison for securities fraud.

He suggested former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich went to prison for “being stupid and saying things that every other politician, you know, that many other politicians say.” That’s absurd.

Blagojevich was caught trying to sell then-President-elect Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat and was convicted of numerous political corruption charges. He is half way through a 14-year prison sentence.

But perhaps most important in this context: Blagojevich was a contestant on Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” TV show.

Trump has hinted he could pardon friends, family members and colleagues. He declared he “absolutely” has the power to pardon himself, though he also says he has done nothing wrong.

In the case of Alice Johnson, clemency was long overdue. She had been an exemplary inmate for the nearly 22 years she served in federal prison, after being convicted of cocaine trafficking conspiracy and money laundering.

Even though she was a first-time, nonviolent offender, she received the devastating sentence of life plus 25 years. In prison, though, she mentored others and became a playwright and a minister.

But lost in the feel-good story of her release was how she landed in prison in the first place.

How does the mother of five children go from a decade-long job at FedEx in Memphis – seven years as a manager -- to relaying code messages like “Everything is straight” as a go-between in a multimillion-dollar drug conspiracy?

Two words: gambling addiction.

Johnson was divorced, trying to provide for her large family without financial help from her ex-husband, when her gambling problem caused her to lose her job and her life to spiral out of control, according to a profile of her in the American Civil Liberties Union’s 2013 study “A Living Death,” about prisoners serving life without parole.

She declared bankruptcy and lost her home to foreclosure. She eventually found a job at a Kellogg’s factory, but the pay wasn’t enough to cover her bills. Desperate for money, she fell in with drug dealers, she said, and made mistakes. 

In court, 10 co-conspirators testified against her, portraying Johnson as the cocaine business ringleader, to get lighter sentences. Johnson denies she was the boss. But U.S. District Court Judge Julia Gibbons called her “the quintessential entrepreneur.”

Trump promises to crack down on drug traffickers who “kill thousands and destroy many more lives.” He insisted in March, “If we don’t get tough on the drug dealers, we’re wasting our time,” adding “toughness includes the death penalty.”

But that was before glamorous Kim Kardashian, visiting the Oval Office to tell the story of a great-grandmother locked away for life, posed with a grinning Trump at his runway-clear desk. 

Apparently, anything is possible with a celebrity at your side.   

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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