Before Ritter, Colorado's governors proved that clemency's risks came with rewards

The lack of clemency actions by the Ritter administration contrasts sharply with Dick Lamm's slew of pardons and commutations in the 1970s and '80s.

Perhaps Lamm's most memorable move was freeing James Bresnahan, who at age fifteen had killed his parents, then gone on to study medicine and earn a college degree while serving two life sentences. Bresnahan's attorney, John Kane (now a senior federal judge), called the governor's attention to mitigating details of the case that had never been made public. Bresnahan went on to pursue a medical career.

"I took a risk, but it worked out well," Lamm commented in a recent e-mail exchange. It helped, he added, that he had an adviser he trusted completely on clemency matters, the late John Inmann, a pioneering criminal justice analyst and reformer: "He was a solid, dedicated and thoughtful guy who wanted to be fair."

Governors in other states have used their clemency powers to help shape public policy and alter the justice system. In 2003, Illinois governor George Ryan rocked the national debate over capital punishment by commuting the sentences of 167 death-row inmates to life in prison, claiming that the state's checkered history of coerced confessions and wrongful convictions left him no choice. Ryan's move came in his final days as governor; six years later, after conviction on federal racketeering and bribery charges, he had no success persuading President George W. Bush to commute his sentence before leaving the White House.

Ohio governor Richard Celeste stirred other controversies in his final years in office. In 1990 he granted clemency to 25 women convicted of assaults or fatal attacks on men who allegedly abused them. At the time, Ohio law didn't allow a "battered woman syndrome" defense, but Celeste had reviewed extensive research from sociologists at Ohio State University and medical records on more than a hundred female prisoners before making his decision.

"It was clear they had experienced battering," says Celeste, now the president of Colorado College. "This was 1989, and the whole notion of the syndrome was only beginning to be understood."

The women's commutation orders required them to perform extensive community service. "Only one of them ever went back to prison, and that was for a drug charge," Celeste says. "It was clear that once they sought help for battering and helped others, they had new lives."

A few months after that clemency decision, Celeste commuted to life the sentences of four men and four women on Ohio's death row. Although each case involved some degree of "modest mitigation," he was also trying to call attention to the fact that Ohio's death row was more than two-thirds black, in a state where blacks made up only 12 percent of the population.

"Anyone who thought there was equal justice under the law hadn't studied what was going on," he says. "The one thing I didn't do, which I should have, was talk to victims' families and prosecutors. It's the one thing I regret."

Prosecutors tried but failed to overturn Celeste's decision. He doesn't think the backlash would have harmed his future political prospects in Ohio, but he went on to an ambassadorship in the Clinton administration instead. A few years ago he defended his clemency actions in a speech at Capital University: "I believed then and I believe now that to show mercy is a sign of our strength as a community, not a sign of our weakness."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast