John Hickenlooper's clemency board: No members, no meetings, no controversy

Our June 12 cover story, "The Fatal Moment," reviews the shifting evidence and contradictory witness accounts that sent three Denver men to prison for life after a fatal 1992 drive-by shooting. Following 22 years of good behavior, Eric Lightner and brothers William and Brian Lee hope to eventually see their sentences reduced by an act of executive clemency.

But don't expect any action on the case from Governor John Hickenlooper any time soon. A key board that's supposed to review applications from inmates seeking a pardon or a commutation of sentence, and then recommend action by the governor, hasn't met for two years and currently has no active members.

Colorado's constitution gives the governor "the power to grant reprieves, commutations and pardons" for all crimes except treason. A properly functioning clemency process can address past sentencing overkill (like the 81-year jolt handed out to Donny Andrews for a series of commercial burglaries), save the public millions of dollars in prison costs, and reward people who have turned their lives around during incarceration -- while still preserving public safety. But as I reported in a 2009 feature, "The Quality of Mercy," the process has become increasingly politicized -- and used less and less -- since the days when Governor John Love granted more than 200 pardons in his ten years on the job. Bill Owens and prosecutor-turned-governor Bill Ritter each squeezed out only a handful of pardons and commutations, including Ritter's posthumous (and thus eminently safe) pardon of Joe Arridy, a young man with an IQ of 46 who was executed in 1939 after a bogus murder confession. But those past two governors seem like reckless bleeding hearts compared to Hickenlooper, who has not granted any requests for pardons or sentence reductions since taking office in 2011. Although Hickenlooper issued an executive order in 2012 reauthorizing the Executive Clemency Advisory Board, a seven-member panel that's supposed to screen clemency applicants and make recommendations, he hasn't yet got around to appointing anyone to serve on the board. (Members are supposed to include the executive directors of the state's Department of Corrections and Department of Public Safety, as well as at least one member who represents crime victims.)

The executive order says the board is supposed to meet every six months. But Hickenlooper spokesman Eric Brown says the board hasn't met since "sometime in 2012" and currently has no active members.

"We are currently recruiting new board members," Brown says. "Until those members are appointed, we are holding pardon and commutation requests."

Members of prison outreach groups have complained that Hickenlooper, who was blasted over the reprieve from execution he provided to convicted killer Nathan Dunlap last year, seems intent on avoiding any additional controversy over prison sentences until after the November election. But Brown notes, "There is no right to a pardon or a commutation -- they are granted at the sole discretion of the governor."

More from our Colorado Crimes archive circa May 2013: "John Hickenlooper gives Nathan Dunlap reprieve from death but doesn't grant clemency."