Last week, Missouri Governor Mike Parsons pardoned a dozen individuals and commuted the sentences of two others. As the governor would surely like everyone to notice, among those pardoned are Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the infamous St. Louisans who made headlines last summer for toting guns and pointing them at Black Lives Matter protestors marching down the street in front of their home.
Conspicuously missing from this list of pardons, along with many other wrongfully convicted individuals, are Kevin Strickland and Lamar Johnson. Mr. Strickland has been in prison for more than forty years since a conviction in 1979 for a triple murder. Mr. Johnson has been in prison since 1994 when he was convicted of killing a man he called one of his best friends. In the cases of both of these men, the true perpetrators of the crimes have since come forward and confessed. Further, in Mr. Strickland’s case, the key witness in his conviction came forward to recant her testimony, and the county prosecutor has declared that she believes him to be wrongfully convicted.
If pardons were truly just, there is no question that Mr. Strickland and Mr. Johnson would be free today. But pardons are not a reliable tool to elevate justice. Instead, they are almost always merely tools for political posturing and signaling. There is little doubt that Mr. Parsons’s pardon of the McCloskeys is such a signal, intended to indicate his allegiance to a political agenda which they embody.
This agenda was made clear at the Republican National Convention, when the McCloskeys claimed that “your family will not be safe” because of Black Lives Matter supporters. At the end of the day, governors want to get re-elected or elected to higher offices, and they will use just about anything at their disposal to help themselves to that end.
Sadly, there is a similar incentive structure at work with local and district prosecutors. Such individuals often seek higher positions, such as the office of state Attorney General, and so they will also do just about whatever they can to build their resumés and bolster their notoriety. Consequently, there often emerges an unfortunate strategy whereby prosecutors seek to convict as many people as possible to appear competent and tough on crime.
A common approach involves pressuring many innocent people into guilty plea deals with threats of more severe charges if they don’t cooperate, thus expediting proceedings and increasing convictions. As a result, the Midwest Innocence Project estimates that three to five percent of imprisoned Americans are wrongfully incarcerated.
However, a bipartisan bill likely to become law in Missouri next week may shake up that vicious cycle. The legislation will allow local prosecutors to file motions to reopen such cases, if there is evidence of wrongful conviction. This could be a critical change, for two principal reasons. First, it would provide new opportunities—besides arduous appeals efforts and politically motivated pardons—to free the wrongfully convicted. Second, it creates a new avenue for local prosecutors, extremely influential actors in the criminal justice system, to advance their careers by freeing rather than imprisoning individuals.
America has a very long road to walk to right the many wrongs of our criminal justice system, but this is a promising sign from a very conservative state with a shameful history of unjust convictions arising from tough-on-crime obsessions. And it is critically important that even small steps like this are taken to move our country closer to a fulfillment of the American promises of liberty and justice for all. Until we go further, it is difficult to call our democracy healthy, with so many unjustly behind bars.