A “pardon” is the act of officially nullifying punishment or other legal consequences of a crime. A pardon is usually granted by the chief executive of a government. This means that a presidential pardon would be required for a federal crime. A state governor would grant a pardon for a state crime. Because there is no governor of Washington, D.C., both state and federal crimes committed in the District can be addressed through a presidential pardon.
A pardon should not be confused with “commutation of sentence.” A pardon nullifies the conviction so that for practical purposes it is as though the conviction never occurred. Commuting the sentence allows the conviction to stand, but waives any remaining penalty. This is the form of “clemency” (meaning mercy or leniency) that President George W. Bush granted Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff, Scooter Libby. In both cases, pardons as well as sentence commutations, the person cannot be retried on the same offense because of the Constitution’s prohibition of double jeopardy.
The process of applying for a presidential pardon is fairly straight-forward. There is a five-year waiting period after completion of sentence for either a federal offense or D.C. conviction. The waiting period begins on the date of the person’s release from confinement. Alternatively, if the conviction resulted in probation or fine but no term of imprisonment, the waiting period begins on the date of sentencing.
Once this waiting period has elapsed, the person needs to submit a petition to the Office of the Pardon Attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice. The petition itself is only about 20 pages long. In addition to contact and other background information, the petitioner is required to lay out the reasons for the request and provide information on the specific conviction in question, any prior or subsequent convictions, employment history, any mental health or substance abuse issues, military record, and charitable and community activities. The petitioner is also required to present affidavits from three people attesting to the petitioner’s good character.
While the process itself appears fairly simple, a person who decides to submit a petition should manage his or her expectations on success. Civil servants at the Justice Department manage the review process, but it is the President who makes the ultimate decision, and Presidents have varied greatly in their inclination to grant a request.