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Perspectives on Pardons

In the course of investigating presidential pardons, senior reporter Dafna Linzer interviewed several former White House counsels, deputy attorneys general and senior government lawyers from five administrations about racial bias and other issues. Linzer also spoke with social scientists and experts on state pardons. Here is some of what they had to say:

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"There are so many issues in the criminal justice system that come down to race, and what you have found is another one of those places." — Larry Thompson, former deputy attorney general

"In the areas where you have the greatest discretion, that is where you see the greatest disproportion in race. If you are operating under imperfect information and trying to assess attitude, which is a totally subjective judgment, that is where the bias creeps and takes hold." — Jack Glaser, a social scientist at University of California, Berkeley, who has researched racial profiling in policing and jury selection

"In a perfect world, a pardon is an act of executive grace that is meant to reflect on the person pardoned and is not meant to be a reflection on the president. But in the world we live in today, it will be seen as more about the president, and high profile mini-scandals like Marc Rich have led to that." — Bradford Berenson, former associate White House counsel

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"One of the sad aftermaths of the (Marc) Rich episode is that it has made people incredibly shy about doing pardons that might otherwise be entirely justified. It just cast a shadow over this presidential power." — Jack Quinn, former White House counsel

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"No prosecutor wants anyone to get executive clemency at all." — Theodore B. Olson, former solicitor general who represented pardon applicants Armand Hammer and Michael Milken

"As the (Office of the Pardon Attorney) makes its standards higher and higher, there are fewer people that can satisfy them. A completely unassailable background is simply not possible, and that is what they're looking for." — Professor Daniel T. Kobil, expert on executive clemency at Capital University Law School, Columbus, Ohio

"The pardon process is too opaque. You can’t get the pardon attorney to tell you what criteria they used, why some judgments are made and others are not … It fosters the notion that it is an inside game, and that doesn’t serve the president’s interests at all." — Stanley M. Brand, former general counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives

"People without means can't push the White House door open, and even if you have means and can push the door open, selling an innocence claim to the White House is a heavy lift." — Bradford Berenson, former associate White House counsel

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"There were people who couldn't have jobs for which they were qualified, couldn't put food on the table for their families, couldn't adopt children, or own guns where it would be helpful to have a permit. I feel very strongly a president should exercise this power." — Jamie Gorelick, former deputy attorney general

"There were some really compelling stories. You look at some of those stories, it was pretty amazing how people had overcome adversity and turned their lives around and gone on to be really productive citizens who are looked up to in their communities, really well regarded by their neighbors, community leaders and folks they went to church with." — Paul B. Murphy, former associate deputy attorney general

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"There were two lessons from Marc Rich: There are political consequences to (pardon) grants and political consequences when you go against the recommendation of the Department of Justice." — Alberto Gonzales, former attorney general and White House counsel

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"I think the White House, whether it's Democratic or Republican, just is afraid to use the pardon power. I think it's a sad thing and the consequence of enormous bitterness." — Bernard W. Nussbaum, former White House counsel

"I don't remember knowing the race of any applicant, but I am now surprised having learned of the racial disparity in pardon grants." — Wendell Taylor, former counsel to the deputy attorney general

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"If someone made a mistake and has done everything they can to ameliorate it and has lived a law abiding life, then people ought to be forgiven." — Clark A. Harms, head of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole appointed by former Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman

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"I think Marc Rich looms larger with Barak Obama than with other presidents because I think he was very, very dismayed by the Marc Rich pardon and the basis on which it appears to have been granted. To him and to most people, it was the epitome of what could go wrong." — Judge Abner Mikva, former White House counsel

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"There are people who have made mistakes, particularly when they're young, and it is in all our interests to help them redeem themselves and then get on a straight path. I think one of the great things about America is we give people second chances." — President Obama, at a January 2010 town hall meeting, responding to an African American man who said his felony record made it hard to get a job