Facts & Research

Clemency

Clemency is the process by which a governor, president, or administrative board may reduce a defendant’s sentence or grant a pardon. Clemencies have been granted in death-penalty cases for a variety of reasons.

Overview

All states and the federal government have a process for lowering the sentence or pardoning those facing criminal charges. Clemency is an especially important consideration for those on death row. Even after all appeals in the courts have been exhausted, there is still a possibility that the inmate’s life will be spared.

Clemencies in capital cases, however, have been rare. Aside from the occasional blanket grants of clemency by governors concerned about the overall fairness of the death penalty, less than two have been granted on average per year since 1976. In the same period, about 1,500 cases have proceeded to execution. Among the reasons given for the granting of clemency in capital cases are: mental illness of the defendant, a co-defendant who was given a lesser sentence, and evidence that the defendant may have been wrongly convicted.

At Issue

Because the power of clemency is vested in the executive branch of the government, courts have been reluctant to impose standards on this procedure. Governors are subject to political influence, and even granting a single clemency can result in harsh attacks. Hence, clemencies in death penalty cases have been unpredictable and immune from review.

Grants of Clemency by State

Clemencies Granted by State since 1976Number of Clemencies

Illinois

187

Ohio

21

Virginia

10

Georgia

9

New Jersey

8

Florida

6

Maryland

6

New Mexico

5

North Carolina

5

Missouri

4

Oklahoma

4

Indiana

3

Tennessee

3

Texas

3

Federal

2

Kentucky

2

Louisiana

2

Arkansas

2

Alabama

1

Delaware

1

Idaho

1

Montana

1

Nevada

1

U.S. Military

1

TOTAL

288

What DPIC Offers

DPIC keeps track of all clemencies granted in capital cases in the modern era by state and year, including the reasons given for the action. It also has compiled material on historical uses of clemency. Finally, DPIC describes the differences among state laws regarding who makes the clemency decision and any constraints on the process.


News & Developments


Mar 13, 2019

California Governor Announces Moratorium on Executions

California Governor Gavin Newsom on March 13, 2019 declared a mora­to­ri­um on exe­cu­tions in the state with the nation’s largest death row. Newsom imple­ment­ed the mora­to­ri­um through an exec­u­tive order grant­i­ng reprieves to the 737 pris­on­ers currently…