Is Clemency next for Zeigler?

Lady JusticeIs Clemency next for Zeigler? That is a question I received after readers saw on my blog that the last appeal based on new evidence was denied by the Florida Supreme Court. Most people however asked: what is clemency and what will be considered during such a procedure?

For an extensive overview of the clemency procedures in the United States, I refer you to the excellent website of the Death Penalty Information Center. Clemency by state is discussed here and shows you in which states the Governor has what type of authority.

There are three types of clemency that are relevant for the death penalty: reprieve, commutation, and a pardon.

A reprieve is the most common and the most limited type of clemency in capital cases. It temporarily postpones an execution to allow for further investigation or proceedings. A reprieve does NOT change or reduce the sentence. A side note that came up during the execution of Troy Davis: a reprieve is an executive order to literally postpone the execution for a specified period of time. A stay of execution is a judicial order. The execution is unlawful during a certain period in which issues must be cleared.

A commutation involves the substitution of a lesser punishment for the one imposed by the courts. It can reduce a capital sentence to life imprisonment or to a prison term. Commutations can and often are conditional.

A pardon is the most expansive type of clemency. It erases the offense or terminates the punishment. The prisoner who received a pardon is legally treated as if they had never been charged or convicted of a crime.

What is discussed during a clemency procedure? Since it is not standardized it can differ from state to state but certain issues will (or better: should) come up:

  • whether there is a substantial doubt of guilt
  • the applicant’s age
  • mental capacities and retardation
  • intoxication at the time of the crime
  • possible disproportionality of the sentence
  • race or gender issues
  • the motive for the crime
  • the fate of co-defendants
  • the applicant’s behaviour while incarcerated
  • whether the applicant has shown remorse
  • humanitarian grounds (such as fatal diseases and the wish to die at home, etc).

There are no standardized laws for clemency in the United States of America. It remains a discretionary process and the end results cannot be reviewed. As a lawyer, I find this unacceptable. I understand that people wish to have some finality as an end to end all procedures however, that end phase cannot be without minimal guidelines standardized for all 50 states.

Personally, I am in favour of public clemency procedures. The advantages would be that we have some accountability for exercising executive clemency, the public has confidence in the quality of the procedure, and clemency will be better understood as an integral and defendable part of the American justice system e.g. that clemency cannot be arbitrarily awarded. An excellent article appeared in the Atlantic “The Texas Clemency Memos.” It describes how then legal counsel Alberto R. Gonzales failed to inform then Texas Governor George W. Bush of critical aspects in clemency cases.

Disadvantages of public clemency procedures as discussed by Daniel T. Kobil (Federal Sentencing Reporter, vol 13 no 3-4 2000-2001) are that it creates an extra burden for our decision makers, raises the expectations for a regular schedule and ultimately, the call for more supervision (but by whom?).

In the case of William Thomas Zeigler, one thing is clear: he always said that he wants to clear his name in a court of law. We should respect that wish. For those who support Zeigler, there is substantial doubt about his guilt and there are still unexplained elements in his case. Those who disagree will point to the many times appeals have been denied and that Zeigler’s motive as per the state of Florida, was money from the life insurance policies.

I hope that this post explains clemency in general a bit better for the Zeigler supporters who asked for information. For more about capital punishment, check the books from Linda E. Carter & Ellen Kreitzberg available via LexisNexis and of course, Robert M. Bohm‘s “DeathQuest” series also available via LexisNexis. Check out Lexis Nexis for legal books, papers and newsletters.

If you have any more questions about clemency, please let me know.

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