What is a Pardon?

Alan Rankin

A pardon is a legal reprieve granted to a person who has been convicted of a crime. Only a high-ranking official, such as a president, king, or other head of state, has the power to grant a pardon. Pardoning someone does not mean the individual is not guilty of the crime. It is usually taken to mean the person has repaid the debt to society or otherwise contributed in a way that supersedes any wrongdoing. It is a dramatic gesture, often applied to high-profile cases and sometimes used as a plot device in legal fiction and movies.

Gerald Ford famously pardoned Richard Nixon.
Gerald Ford famously pardoned Richard Nixon.

Historically, pardons were traditionally granted by kings and other monarchs. According to the Bible and other ancient texts such as the Torah, the Hebrew prophet Joseph was pardoned and released from prison by the Egyptian pharaoh. Numerous other examples appear in the histories of nations around the world. Article Two of the United States Constitution grants pardoning powers to the U.S. president. After civil wars, heads of state sometimes offer pardons to former combatants to hasten the restoration of social order. After the American Civil War, for example, Presidents Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant pardoned those who fought on the side of the Confederacy.

The White House can grant a legal reprieve to persons found guilty of a crime.
The White House can grant a legal reprieve to persons found guilty of a crime.

A pardon is different from a reprieve or commutation, which temporarily or permanently reduces the penalty for a crime. These are all forms of clemency, which do not absolve the convicted person of guilt. Exoneration and amnesty do remove guilt, either through re-examination of the facts or by intervention from a head of state; these are not technically pardons, but the effect is often identical. A pardon can be granted before a person has been charged with a crime or at any time thereafter, even after the person has died. Accepting pardons is effectively an admission of guilt. For this reason, some individuals have refused pardons to maintain their claims of innocence. In the U.S., state governors can pardon individuals for state offenses, but not for federal crimes.

United States presidential pardons have often been controversial. In 1974, President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon for any crimes he may have committed while in office. This stymied legal proceedings against the disgraced former president, although several of Nixon’s associates went to prison. In 2001, President Bill Clinton issued 140 pardons on his last day in office. His choice of felons provoked controversy, including wealthy tax evader Marc Rich while ignoring others, such as Native American activist Leonard Peltier.

According to Christian tradition, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate had the chance to pardon Jesus Christ, but was pressured into pardoning a criminal instead. In 2003, the governor of New York granted a posthumous pardon to influential comedian Lenny Bruce for a 1964 obscenity conviction. In 2010, Florida’s governor similarly pardoned rock star Jim Morrison of the Doors of a 1969 morals charge, decades after Morrison’s death. In crime fiction and movies of the 20th century, it became a cliché for a governor to pardon a wrongfully convicted prisoner about to be executed, usually at the last possible moment.

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