Clemency is a form of mercy in the criminal justice system. But in some states, that clemency can be merciless.
Each state and the federal government has its own processes to accepting parole or probation or commuting a prison sentence. Most of these are called parole boards, where a committee of people hears arguments in favor or against putting a prison inmate on parole or probation before fulfilling his entire sentence. Often when inmates show growth, remorse or some form of redemption through good behavior, these parole or clemency boards will take those changes into consideration when deliberating whether an inmate should go free.
Clemency or parole boards tend to serve a dual purpose – first, they can help save the government money by releasing an inmate a few years early so less taxpayer money goes into housing and clothing the inmate; and it serves as a motivation for inmates to behave while in prison so they can experience freedom sooner.
The prison system is generally a public entity, and yet Texas has a clemency board that has shown to be quite secretive. That came for the fore in a recent case, when Chris Young was executed for the 2004 murder of a San Antonio store owner as part of an attempted robbery.
The clemency hearing was not really a hearing; the board members are participated remotely, voted and are never required to give a reason for their votes. The board, despite Young’s positive impacts in the prison, was unanimously rejected clemency and was executed just days after the board voted.
As a final effort, Young’s criminal defense lawyers filed suit against the clemency board, claiming that their votes reeked of racial discrimination because Young was a black man. The votes of the board are made public, but there is no hearing and no public deliberation, and board members are never obligated to reveal their reasoning’s for their votes. They are allowed to do so, but they have rarely done it without compulsion, according to other criminal defense lawyers familiar with these types of cases.
The lawsuit went nowhere, as the judge was forced to deny the suit claiming there was not enough time to establish racial bias in the vote before the execution were to go through, and without hard evidence, it would have been impossible for the case to even get a fair hearing.
Over the last 20 years, clemency has been granted to inmates only three times, while 400 people in Texas have been put to death, so the odds of clemency in this case were considered minimal at best, though Young’s attorney tried to indicate a similarity to one of the rare clemency case, of a fellow black man named Thomas Whitaker, who was granted life in prison instead of the death penalty after plotting and helping execute the murder of several family members.
The similarity, though, seemed to end only at ethnicity, as the state was able to discern differences in the cases – Young’s prior behavior and criminal record before the murder, some of his behavioral citations while on death row and other factors – not to mention the fact that Young pulled the trigger in his murder case, while Whitaker was not the one who actually killed his family.
A secret in the public eye is cause of skepticism, and maybe it is time to grant some clemency to the public for its right to know what happens with public officials.