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The ability to pardon criminals is a unique power of a president, one that can be politically motivated and often draws criticism But as Reveal's Michael Schiller explains, pardons can also change lives.
It is a unique power of a president, and it often draws criticism. The ability to pardon criminals can be politically motivated.
As Michael Schiller from Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting lays out here, pardons can also change lives.
The battle of Indiana, undefeated Charles "Duke" Tanner.
Charles "Duke" Tanner started out in Gary, Indiana's youth boxing and Golden Gloves. He turned pro at 18 and was undefeated in the ring.
Tanner was on track to be a cruiserweight title contender, before it all came crashing down.
It's been 16 years since his last fight, and he spent most of that time in federal prison.
This is call from:
Charles “Duke” Tanner:
An inmate at a federal prison.
Hey, Duke, how are you?
Oh, man, another blessed day, man, another day closer to coming home.
In 2019, he called me from Allenwood correctional facility in Pennsylvania. He had already served 14 years for his first offense, a nonviolent drug trafficking charge.
I was found guilty by a jury of five kilos or more of powdered cocaine. They gave me a life sentence for it. I had life without parole. My only way home was in a casket.
There was one other way, a presidential pardon. He submitted a petition to the pardon attorney's office at the Department of Justice.
If I could talk to President Trump, just tell him I'm seeking this clemency based off of change, hope and the possibilities of making America great again.
There are a lot of people waiting to hear back from the pardon attorney's office. It has more than 14,000 pending petitions.
Duke Tanner, to me, was somebody who stood out head and shoulders above so many cases that I receive.
Amy Povah helped Tanner file his clemency petition.
T. for Tanner.
After serving nine years for a nonviolent drug crime, she got clemency from President Clinton herself. When she got out, Povah started the CAN-DO Clemency Foundation, using the knowledge she gathered in the prison law library.
I don't think we need to be putting first offenders in prison for life for nonviolent drug offenses. And he had so many accomplishments at a very young age that defined who I felt his character was. He was probably at the very top of our list of worthy clemency candidates.
What were some of the things you were up against?
The Office of the Pardon Attorney is — resides inside the Department of Justice. And our experience is that very few prosecutors who put people in prison are inclined to want to release them.
She says this conflict of interest has broken the system.
It's kind of a very unfair, biased process where some of the best candidates don't make it to the White House and, frankly, some questionable ones do.
Sam Morison worked in the Pardon Attorney's Office for 13 years. It decides whether to recommend for or against clemency to the president.
They don't review these looking for good cases to recommend. They look — they review them looking for a reason to say no. So, there are vanishingly few favorable recommendations in a commutation case.
A commutation gets you out of prison. A pardon restores your civil rights. Both are forms of presidential clemency. President Obama gave more than 1,700 commutations and 212 pardons, primarily to nonviolent drug offenders. It was the most presidential clemencies in decades.
That's a pretty good number. That's a lot. I grant you that. But if you compare it to the size of the federal prison population, it actually isn't all that historically significant.
Morison is in private practice now, submitting petitions to the Pardon Attorney's Office. He says the challenges are made worse by its secrecy.
They won't talk to applicants or their attorneys. They won't share the government's views on a case with an applicant or his attorney.
That allows them to pretty much say whatever they want in one of these recommendations without any oversight at all.
Many of president's Trump's clemencies have gone to friends and political allies who never applied through the Pardon Attorney's Office in the first place. That's what made Tanner's case so surprising.
My case manager came with the officer and they stopped by my cell. So, they are like: "Hey, Tanner, we need to talk to you."
And he said: "You got to go home. You know, the president signed off on you. We got to get you off the complex. He signed off on you to get out of here three hours ago."
A little over a year after our first conversation, on October 21, President Trump signed Tanner's clemency warrant. He walked out of prison that same day.
Man, I won't lie. To be honest, it really didn't hit me until I saw my son the following day that I was free.
He knows how lucky he is to have a second chance.
That embracement and that chance, that second chance to be with my son, I don't think nothing in the world is going to — in my life is going to ever top that. I can go win the heavyweight or whatever world title tomorrow or get a billion dollars, and I will not feel better than I felt that day.
So why Duke Tanner? The Pardon Attorney's Office declined to comment.
We know he was one of five nonviolent offenders serving long sentences who were released that day. It was less than two weeks before the election. This video of Tanner reuniting with his son was used in a campaign ad for President Trump.
Thank you, President Trump. Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart. All praise and glory go to God.
Now Tanner is home in Indiana. This was his first time back at the gym where he started his career.
I started training. I started training Monday with my son and started on my diet and whatnot, so I can really hit the gym and start getting it going.
According to an ACLU study, Black men are 20 times more likely to get life without parole for nonviolent crimes than whites.
Former federal prosecutor Mark Osler thinks clemency is the way to reverse unfair prison sentences from the war on drugs.
Clemency has to be part of the measures that we take to address mass incarceration. Our clemency system is broken, and it needs to be fixed.
What's the danger of not having a functioning pardon system?
The problem with not having clemency work is that things come out of balance. It has to embrace justice and mercy. We need both. And clemency is the vehicle for mercy.
Osler sees an opportunity for president-elect Joe Biden.
There is a simple fix for clemency. The problem is the evaluation process. And we need to have a clemency board that would review the cases to make recommendations directly to the president.
Sam Morison agrees.
What I would recommend that President Biden do is that you take something very much like the Pardon Office and reconstitute it somewhere else.
I actually agree that prosecutors should have a voice in the process. They just shouldn't be the only voice.
Tanner is grateful to all the people that helped him beat the odds.
And we celebrate, God, you bringing your son home.
He is working to convert this baseball stadium in Gary, Indiana, into a pop-up boxing ring for his return to pro sports next fall. He's got the support of state Senator Eddie Melton.
Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Ind.:
What could a major fight do for Gary?
What better places to come and show that we can give it back?
Tanner went from a cell in a federal prison to a White House Christmas party in a matter of weeks. His plea to the president? Use your power to let more people out of prison.
And we need to come together as a collective to work on bringing more men and women home to their families.
Tanner is fortunate enough to be one of the people that President Trump has granted clemency to so far.
With little time left in the White House, there are still 14,282 petitions pending.
For "PBS NewsHour" and Reveal, this is Michael Schiller.
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