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The governor’s clemency power has been restored. Here’s why that matters.

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: February 4
  • Published February 4

Last month, Gov. Bill Walker quietly restored a basic right guaranteed by the Alaska Constitution that had been denied for 11 years: the right to request executive clemency for crimes.

Walker hasn't yet used his power to pardon crimes, commute sentences, or reduce fines, but his office now is accepting applications, as law and the Constitution require it to do. It is forming a committee to review them.

This is another of several state functions Walker has fixed that were left broken after a series of three one-term Republican governors. The National Guard. The Department of Corrections. A Medicaid system that couldn't balance its books.

He deserves credit. There is a basic decency in Walker that is too rare in today's politics. You might not agree with him, but you know he is trying to do the right thing.

I hope the governor uses his newfound power to release some of Alaska's unjustly imprisoned convicts and to relieve the burden of punishment from good people whose lives are unreasonably restricted by old convictions.

Our state's error-prone criminal justice system is staunchly resistant to correction. Its racially imbalanced staff of judges and prosecutors imprisons a huge over-representation of Alaska Natives. In civil cases, court rules for awarding attorney fees overwhelmingly advantage the wealthy and the government.

I've written previously on all these topics.

But what bothers me fundamentally is how Alaska's clubby insider class has forgotten its duty to show mercy for regular people.

Mercy is a fundamental human virtue. But mercy is out of fashion. The drug crisis has many Alaskans worried about crime and ready to throw away the key on prisoners.

The founding fathers knew better. They believed in the fallibility of all human institutions, including the legal system, and they counted on addressing its errors through clemency and habeas corpus (the prisoner's right of review for release).

Beginning 30 years ago, a revolution of exonerations proved them right, with DNA evidence releasing falsely convicted prisoners across the country. Those numbers grew to the thousands with new science about evidence and investigations. Today, 90 percent of exonerations do not involve DNA.

Some innocent convicts were imprisoned more than 30 years. Others came off death row. Some died before being exonerated. At least one was executed before the evidence against him was disproven.

But that revolution bypassed Alaska. Our courts, apparently, really are infallible. At least, they almost never admit error.

New laws and procedures helped make sure of that.

In the 1990s, the Alaska Legislature amended the Post-Conviction Relief process to prevent pleas for release. Just filing is hard for prisoners, with deadlines and fees that are designed to be barriers, and almost no one has ever won.

Clemency, once given routinely, became increasingly rare, until, starting with Gov. Sarah Palin, applications were simply ignored.

In 2007, the Legislature had called for a new process to review clemency requests before the governor could grant them. But until Walker acted last month, that process was never created. About 250 requests came in and were not read.

On the national level, Congress effectively killed habeas corpus in 1996.

Who cares? Here are two stories I stumbled upon that made me care.

I met Brian Petrilla in 1997 while working on an article about juvenile justice. Officials at McLaughlin Youth Center introduced him as an example of how a young person could be redeemed.

I was impressed. He was a great kid.

Four years earlier, Petrilla had robbed a credit union. The developing teenage brain can make bad choices. His judge called him a 12-year-old in a 17-year-old's body.

But Petrilla took responsibility and tried to fix what he did. He apologized. He counselled other kids onto the right track. He decided to dedicate his life to that cause.

It wasn't so easy. Petrilla's criminal record still dogged him in his 30s. He applied to Gov. Sean Parnell for a pardon so he could work in law enforcement and so his wife could operate a licensed home daycare.

Despite support from the judge, the prosecutor, and many others, plus media attention, Parnell ignored the request. Petrilla never got an answer. Ultimately, he left Alaska.

Now 41, he lives in Nevada, where he works as a juvenile probation officer. His record doesn't affect him as much there, although he said it may have cost him promotion into the adult probation office.

Last month, Petrilla received a phone call from Alaska inviting him to apply for clemency again. The state is discarding all the old applications and giving everyone another chance.

That's an ironic situation for Donna Armey. She applied in the 1990s, but the state discarded the letters of recommendation and other papers she would have attached to a new application.

As I detailed in May, Armey was convicted in 1987 for a murder in Fairbanks related to her husband's drug dealing. She wasn't present at the shooting and no credible evidence shows she knew about it in advance. A judge said she was barely an accomplice at all.

But Armey was unlucky in court, where luck shouldn't matter.

The shooter and two other accomplices were released long ago. They made deals. Armey insisted on her innocence, as she still does, and went to trial. Her attorney represented her poorly and she got a 99-year sentence.

Last month, the Alaska Court of Appeals again rejected Armey's Post Conviction Relief petition. It said she missed the deadline the Legislature's set in the 1990s. It didn't consider the justice of her situation.

Now Armey is trying to appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court, but her filing was rejected because it didn't come from her state-appointed Fairbanks attorneys—attorneys who have begged to quit the case because she is so angry. As, I think, anyone would be.

Armey called me again from prison. She hasn't heard from her attorneys. Time is running out to file her appeal.

I suggested she apply for clemency. It's a long shot, but more likely than the legal system ever admitting its mistakes. That will never happen.

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

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