The phone call is real. Just as depicted in books and movies, in most states a governor really can halt a scheduled execution at the last moment with a clemency call to the warden.
It’s an awesome, solemn power and one that cannot be shied away from, says the Hon. Robert Ehrlich Jr., who served as the 60th governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007.
Speaking to Catholic University law students on Oct. 19, the governor’s remarks, “Crime, Collateral Consequences and Why Criminal Justice is Not a Partisan Issue” provided a fascinating inside look at the power of pardon and clemency in the criminal justice system.
“This is part of the job description. This is what governors do,” said Ehrlich. “In my own mind, I had to be sure these pardons were the right thing to do, because there were significant repercussions if we were wrong.”
Ehrlich, now senior counsel with the Government Advocacy and Public Policy Group at King and Spaulding, used his power as the state’s chief executive liberally, surprising some in the media because he is a Republican.
Discarding his predecessor’s policy of refusing to review cases of anyone who received a life sentence, Ehrlich and advisors met monthly to discuss requested pardons and sentence commutations. Some were easy calls, but many were not.
Twice during his term, Ehrlich permitted scheduled executions to proceed.
“They were not as emotionally difficult for me as I thought. The crimes were egregious and horrific,” he said.
The power of gubernatorial clemency is deeply rooted in American history and was once a regular feature of our criminal justice system. No longer, says Ehrlich, who noted that in 1980, there were 150 Americans in jail per 100,000 citizens. Today, that number has risen to 753.
“We live in a country that imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other in the developed world,” Ehrlich observed.
Even his political opponents concede that Ehrlich’s years in the statehouse were distinguished by a willingness to consider that someone may have been wrongfully imprisoned, or had paid their debt to society and could be freed.
“Go lock yourself away in a closet for 20 minutes, and then think about what it’s like to be locked away like that for years—and some of these convicts didn’t do it! How much is that worth?” he exclaimed.
The ex-governor dangled a tantalizing notion before the CUA law audience, noting that he is looking for an area law school to host a new center for the study of criminal policy and pardons.
Governor Ehrlich agreed to speak at the special program for first-year day students at the invitation of faculty Professor Cara Drinan. The event was sponsored by the Office of Student Life and Special Events and qualified for an honor education credit.