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Alaska has violated convicts’ constitutional rights for a decade by ignoring their pleas for mercy

For a decade, Alaska convicts' pleas for pardons never reached the governor, but were put in a file and ignored, a violation of the petitioners' constitutional rights, according to a report by the State Ombudsman.

About 250 petitions for clemency have come to the Parole Board since 2007 and stopped there, said Director Jeffrey Edwards. Gov. Frank Murkowski issued the last pardon.

Governors Sarah Palin, Sean Parnell and Bill Walker made no arrangements for staff to even look at clemency requests that were sent to the Parole Board.

The governor's power to grant clemency is written in the Alaska Constitution. He or she can refuse all requests, but the Alaska Supreme Court has ruled that convicts have a due process right to at least have their petitions forwarded to the governor.

I first reported about Alaska's broken clemency process in May in a series of columns that highlighted the cases of two women whose continued imprisonment seems unjust. Despite that attention, nothing happened.

Then, last week, an envelope arrived on my desk from a prisoner at Goose Creek Correctional Center. I hate getting these envelopes. I receive many thick letters from prison and often don't have time to read their claims of innocence, much less follow up.

But this one was different. It contained a letter to prisoner Loren Larson and a report from the Alaska Ombudsman saying his complaint about the clemency process was justified.

"We take that one lone voice in the dark and we listen to it," said Ombudsman Kate Burkhart. "That's a significant issue, clemency and the ability to petition for pardon."

Executive clemency is an ancient power of kings that was written into the U.S. Constitution and the Alaska Constitution. Along with the right of habeas corpus, it was intended as a safety valve for a justice system that the founders knew makes mistakes, as do all human systems.

Many petitions for clemency also come from people who have reformed their lives and seek restoration of their rights. Felons cannot vote or own a gun and are barred from a variety of jobs requiring a state license.

At one time, Alaska governors regularly used clemency to either pardon crimes—wiping away convictions—or to commute sentences or reduce fines.

In the first seven years of statehood, Gov. Bill Egan granted 99 acts of clemency, often at Christmas, according to the ombudsman report. But from 1994 to 2002, Gov. Tony Knowles issued only two.

The next governor, Frank Murkowski, issued several pardons with little consultation and just before leaving office. A controversial pardon in that batch prompted the Legislature to pass a law requiring public review of clemency decisions before a governor can issue them.

Since the law passed in 2007, clemency requests have languished. No process was ever set up to comply with the law, Edwards said.

Attorney Wayne Anthony Ross has pursued the issue for years. He said he has about a dozen clients seeking clemency to recover their gun rights and other privileges. Ross is a former candidate for governor and was appointed attorney general by Gov. Palin but was not confirmed by the Legislature.

"Sean Parnell told me Palin gave him the job of getting it straightened out," Ross said. "When he was lieutenant governor she told him to get it up and running, and he never did."

The solution arranged by the ombudsman simply requires the Parole Board to pass on the petitions to the Governor's Office. That will at least get the petitions to the right desk, like others that were sent there directly.

But the problem remains in the Governor's Office. Nothing is being done with the requests it receives.

When I asked why on Monday, Walker's communication director, Grace Jang, gave me the same response I received in May. The process is under review.

"I think they're busy and not enough fire has been lit under their butts," Ross said.

This is not a complex problem. Under the law passed in 2007, the governor is supposed to tell the Parole Board which clemency petitions to consider. The board then conducts an investigation and public process, returning a recommendation to the governor for final action.

If we can afford to imprison people for $40,000 a year surely we can afford a staffer in the Governor's Office to take the hours necessary to read their clemency requests.

A government that can't do that much is incompetent. And hypocritical. The Constitution is the law for government officials. Don't throw the book at criminals and then fail to obey the law that applies to you.

Real people suffer because of this failure.

Twenty years ago, I met a young man who had robbed a credit union four years earlier, at age 17.

He became a model citizen, apologized to the credit union, worked with juveniles to help them avoid crime, and won the support of the prosecutor, judge, and everyone else involved in his case, who all urged a pardon.

Brian Petrilla committed his crime in 1993. In 2009, he couldn't advance his career helping kids because of his conviction. His wife was barred from running a home daycare.

His petition received the same treatment as all the others.

As senseless as that case was, allowing innocent people to languish for decades in prison is worse.

In the 1990s, Congress and the Alaska Legislature pared away at the ability of convicts to have their cases reviewed. Now getting out is next to hopeless for innocent Alaskans who lack rare DNA evidence.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that judicial finality is more important than releasing innocent prisoners. That leaves clemency as the best avenue.

Loren Larson was convicted in 1997 of a drug-related double murder in Fairbanks. I don't know much about his case, but I'm glad the ombudsman listened and now someone will at least have to read his petition.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Correction: An earlier version of this column misspelled the name of Kate Burkhart.

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