Obama commutes dozens of sentences, but remains the ‘Scrooge’ of pardons

·Chief Investigative Correspondent
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Sala Udin speaks at The Moth in Pittsburgh in 2014. (Photo: Renee Rosensteel)

What does it take to get a pardon from President Obama?

It’s a question Sala Udin, a former Pittsburgh City Council member and onetime civil rights Freedom Rider, is asking a lot this summer, more than three years after he first asked a president he deeply admires to grant him a pardon for a 44-year-old federal firearms conviction.

“It’s downright depressing,” says Udin, 72. “I don’t know whether [my application] has gotten lost in the back of the file, but I haven’t heard anything. It’s very frustrating.”

The White House announced Monday that Obama had commuted the sentences of more than 46 nonviolent offenders, a move that officials say illustrates his commitment to criminal justice reform.

"These men and women were not hardened criminals," Obama said in a video posted to the White House's Facebook page. "Their punishments didn't fit the crime."

But the announcement did not include a pardon of Udin, one of the more than 800 people whose applications for presidential mercy are stacked up at the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney.

That extends a record of parsimony on pardons that critics say is one of the paradoxes of Obama’s presidency: Obama, who has spoken with eloquence about grace and redemption, has granted fewer pardons (64) than any president since James Garfield (who died from an assassin’s bullet in 1881 barely six months after he had been sworn in).

“He’s been unusually stingy — he’s a clemency Grinch,” says Douglas Berman, an Ohio State law professor who has studied presidential pardons.

Obama’s reluctance to use his constitutional power to pardon to some extent reflects his determination to avoid controversies, such as the uproar that followed Bill Clinton’s pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich on his last day in office, critics and current and former officials say.

Even the relatively few pardons Obama has granted — such as one for an aging bootlegger and another for a man convicted of mutilating coins in the early 1960s — have been largely trivial, and missed opportunities to correct past injustices or excesses in the criminal justice system, his critics say.

“It’s just not something that he’s interested in,” says P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political science professor who writes a blog, Pardon Power, and ranks Obama as “the seventh least merciful” president in history.

Obama, for his part, has blamed the Office of Pardon Attorney, whose chief, Ronald Rodgers, resigned last year amid disclosures that he had misrepresented a commutation applicant’s record to the White House. (The relatively small office — with about seven lawyers — that reviews all pardon and commutation applications is now headed by a former journalist, Deborah Leff.)

“I noticed that what I was getting [from the Pardon Office] was mostly small-time crimes from very long ago,” Obama said in an interview with the Huffington Post last March, in which he vowed to move “more aggressively” on petitions during his remaining time in office.

Sources have also told Yahoo News’ Liz Goodwin that the president complained that the pardon attorney’s office was sending him petitions from wealthy and connected applicants, who typically wanted a pardon so that they could get a hunting license.

Whatever the reasons for past inaction, it has been little comfort so far to Udin, whose lawyer, Margaret Love (the former chief of the Justice Department’s pardon office), calls him a “poster child” for a pardon.

In his youth, Udin (who changed his name from Samuel Howze) was a Freedom Rider for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who braved racist cops while registering black voters in the Mississippi Delta. “I was beaten up pretty bad and thought I was going to die,” said Udin, recalling an incident in which he was pulled over and ordered to “get out of the car, n—–!”

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Portrait of Sala Udin (Sam Howze) wearing Ankh necklace and kufi in 1970. (Photo: Charles “Teenie” Harris/Carnegie Museum of Art/Getty Images)

In 1970, while driving back from Mississippi, Udin was stopped for speeding outside Louisville and an unloaded rifle was found in the trunk of his car, resulting in his conviction for interstate commerce of firearms and his incarceration for eight months in federal prison.

Udin doesn’t dispute his guilt, but he offered an explanation in his application to the Justice Department: “At that point, although I was previously committed to nonviolence, I concluded that if I was trapped on some lonely, dark road in the South and confronted by Klansmen who threatened to kill me, I would be prepared to defend my life,” he wrote in his petition. “I concluded that I would rather be caught by the police with defensive weapons than to be caught by the Klan without them.”

Udin had had a few other earlier minor brushes with the law — including state convictions for having an unregistered handgun in his car in Pittsburgh and receiving stolen property, both of which were wiped clean by a pardon from then Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell in 2007.

But following his convictions more than four decades ago, Udin made what Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey called (in a letter to Obama last year endorsing his petition) “extraordinary contributions to the community.” He founded an African-American Culture Center in Pittsburgh, headed up a national leadership institute, and served three terms on the Pittsburgh City Council (from 1995 to 2006), spearheading the creation of the city’s police civilian review board.

Udin acknowledges one possible obstacle in his petition: In 2007, he campaigned for Obama and made a $500 contribution to his campaign. Could the White House be reluctant to endorse Udin’s pardon petition for fear it would look like a political favor for a past supporter?

“I don’t want to say or do anything that would cause a problem for President Obama,” Udin said. “I love him. If that’s the reason, I’ll accept it. I just don’t want it to be for any other reason.”

The White House wouldn’t comment on Udin’s (or any other) case, nor would the Justice Department say whether his application had even made it to the president’s desk. But a White House spokeswoman, when asked about the president’s record on pardons generally, said, “The president’s term isn’t over yet,” adding in an email: “The president believes strongly that the ability to petition for clemency is a critical component of our criminal justice system. He looks forward to reviewing additional requests for clemency in the coming months.”