Records Show Puerto Ricans Got U.S. Help With Clemency
October 21, 1999 - The New York Times - Front Page - Neil A. Lewis
WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department took extraordinary steps to
enhance the chances of clemency for a group of imprisoned Puerto
Rican nationalists after receiving regular expressions of interest
from the White House, according to documents released Wednesday. In
one instance, the department's top officials repeatedly urged the
prisoners' supporters in Congress to persuade them to fashion a
statement of repentance to help their chances of release.
The documents released at a hearing by the Senate Judiciary
Committee also show that the Puerto Rican nationalists did not
apply for clemency personally, as is usually required, but
department officials processed an application anyway. Under
department regulations, a personal application is usually required
to start the process, because such a move is taken as a sign of
remorse for the criminal acts.
The documents suggest that the prisoners did not apply for
clemency themselves as a symbolic demonstration of their political
credo that they have not accepted the authority of the U.S.
government. Department officials acknowledged in internal memos
that it was highly unusual even to consider clemency in cases in
which the prisoners themselves declined to file their own
President Clinton offered clemency to 16 of the prisoners on
Aug. 11 after supporters applied on their behalf. The prisoners
were convicted of crimes on behalf of the F.A.L.N., a militant Puerto
Rican independence group, more than two decades ago.
The details and sequence of events leading up to Clinton's
clemency offer have remained murky because the White House and
Justice Department have declined to release much information,
citing executive privilege. Because the Constitution explicitly
gives the president the sole authority to issue pardons,
administration lawyers have argued that the president's discussions
with subordinates over the issue of clemency for the Puerto Rican
prisoners is privileged and need not be disclosed.
But the documents disclosed Wednesday give a partial picture of
the unusual way in which the issue was handled. Applications for
clemency are typically generated when a prisoner presses the issue.
In this case, it appears that the White House and Justice
Department were interested in keeping the issue of clemency alive
even after the department's pardon attorney recommended that
clemency be denied.
A letter in July 1997 from Margaret C. Love, the pardon
attorney, to White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff showed that she
recommended against clemency. But her successor, Roger Adams, filed
a second report this year that contained no explicit recommendation
for the president, as such reports usually do, but instead offered
Clinton a range of options, law-enforcement officials have said.
The committee's documents show that Adams and Eric Holder, the
deputy attorney general, met with Democratic Reps. Luis Gutierrez
of Illinois, Jose Serrano and Nydia Velasquez, both of New York, on
Nov. 5, 1997, to discuss the case of the Puerto Rican inmates.
According to Adams' notes, Holder told the three members of
Congress that because the prisoners had not applied for clemency
themselves, this could be taken that they were not repentant and he
suggested that a statement expressing some remorse might help their
On April 9, 1998, according to Adams' notes, he contacted a
staff aide to Gutierrez and said the department had not received
any statement of remorse. The notes show that Adams counseled the
staff aide as to how the statement should be worded for maximum
effect and he added that the department's new report would await
In the end, the prisoners provided a long ambiguous statement,
with no explicit statement of regret. While some people had been
hurt, the statement said, "innocent victims were on all sides."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who is the Judiciary Committee
chairman, also noted that just a month after Clinton's clemency
offer, Attorney General Janet Reno said in a report that the
nationalist groups the prisoners had been aligned with posed an
"ongoing threat" to national security.
"Factors which increase the present threat from these groups
include ... the impending release from prisons of members of these
groups jailed for prior violence," Reno wrote in the Justice
Department's Five Year Interagency Counterterrorism and Technology
Crime Plan published last month and made public at Wednesday's
The F.B.I. and the federal prosecutors in Illinois and Connecticut,
where many of the convictions had been obtained, flatly recommended
that the president refuse clemency. After he did so over their
objections, Clinton was widely criticized by law enforcement
groups, families of the victims of some of the crimes committed by
the F.A.L.N. and both Republican and Democratic members of Congress.
Clinton denied speculation that he had granted clemency to help
the candidacy of his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, a likely
Democratic candidate for the senate from New York, which has a
large Puerto Rican voting population.
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont was the only Democrat to appear at
the hearing. After saying he was disturbed by the decision to grant
clemency but that it was Clinton's prerogative, Leahy departed
leaving the Republicans to take turns grilling the two Justice
Department witnesses, Holder and Adams.
Clemency For Pollard
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