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What Does it Mean to Be Granted Clemency?


If you followed the Netflix show “Making a Murderer,” you might know that the young man, B. Dassey, who confessed to the rape and murder of T. Halbach recently petitioned for clemency. In 2007, he was convicted of the offenses and ordered to life in prison.

Dassey’s attorney said that the physical evidence found at the scene, along with her client’s inability to describe the events leading to Halbach’s death, prove that he was wrongly convicted. Additionally, the footage of Dassey’s interview suggests that he was coerced into making a false confession and then was later pressured by his lawyer at the time to plead guilty.

In April of 2019, Dassey, who is now 29, sent a letter to Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, reasserting his innocence and asking for clemency.

What Is Clemency?

Clemency is when an executive member of the government reduces the terms of a person’s conviction sentence – either by decreasing prison/jail time or absolving an individual of their crime. For federal crimes, requests for clemency are sent to the President of the United States of America; for state crimes, they are made to the governor.

Having clemency as a part of the criminal justice system can help:

  • Individuals convicted of offenses work toward rehabilitation
  • Increase the safety of jail/prison workers, as well as inmates
  • Remove barriers that make it difficult for a person to re-enter society
  • Rectify legal injustices

In California, the governor has the power to grant two types of clemency: commutations and pardons.

What Is a Commutation?

When the governor grants a commutation, they effectively decrease the amount of time a person must remain in prison. The sentence could either be reduced or be lessened to jail time.

If a person wants to apply for a commutation, they must submit an application to the Governor’s Office. Although not required, they can also include documents, showing their rehabilitation progress, to support their request. They must also file a notice to the district attorney’s office in the county where the case was handled, letting them know they are applying for clemency.

What Is a Pardon?

If a person is granted a pardon, that means the governor has acknowledged that they have been rehabilitated and forgives them of their crime.

This type of clemency allows for specific rights to be restored, such as:

  • Possessing a firearm
  • Not being required to register as a sex offender
  • Serving on a jury
  • Being employable for a position as a county probation or state parole officer
  • Applying for a state professional license

A pardon does not expunge the offense from a person’s record.

To apply for a pardon, a person could either petition for a Certificate of Rehabilitation (if granted, a pardon application is automatically filed) or submit a Direct Request to the Governor. If filing a direct request, the individual must also notify the district attorney's office of their intent to request clemency.

Clemency Review Process

The Board of Parole Hearings investigates the petitions for both commutations and pardons.

When determining whether or not to grant clemency, the reviewing agency and governor will look at:

  • The impact on public safety
  • The length of time since the offense
  • The specific circumstances of the case
  • The age of the individual when the crime happened
  • The inmate’s focus on self-development, which includes participating in rehabilitation and treatment programs
  • The individuals need for a commutation or pardon

If clemency is granted, the Governor’s Office will notify the applicant.

In 2019, Governor Newsom granted executive clemency for 28 individuals: 7 were given pardons in May, and 21 received commutations in September. Those granted commutations are eligible to have their cases heard by the Board of Parole Hearings.

Reach Out to Appel & Morse for Legal Representation

If you or a loved one was charged with an offense, we can help you understand the criminal justice process and answer questions you might have about potential outcomes of your case. With extensive experience practicing law, we know the system and what your legal options are.

Schedule a free case evaluation by calling us at (805) 467-6060 or contacting us online.

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