Suit seeks clemency records

Suit seeks clemency records

Staff WriterJuly 7, 2005 

The News & Observer Publishing Co. has sued Gov. Mike Easley to force him and his successors to make public any records relating to decisions to spare the life of a death-row inmate or pardon someone for a crime.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Wake County Superior Court, seeks access to any documents Easley uses to reach a decision and asks the court to formally declare them public records.

Melanie Sill, the newspaper's executive editor, compared the issue to open courtroom proceedings.

"A judge rules, but it doesn't mean no one else gets to hear the testimony," she said. "It's too important a decision to happen in total secrecy."

The public has an "inherent and fundamental right to know, understand and evaluate the clemency process," the lawsuit states. In order to do that, the lawsuit says, all related records must be available for review.

The newspaper filed suit after the governor declined to release the records. The lawsuit has not changed the governor's mind, said Andrew Vanore, one of Easley's attorneys.

"Of course not," Vanore said. "This governor is the first governor in history, certainly as far as I'm aware of, that has ever made any clemency documents public."

Under the state constitution, governors enjoy a unique power to grant reprieves, commutations and pardons for all offenses except for impeachment. State law requires each application for a pardon to be made in writing and to be signed by the applicant. The applications must also say why the pardon should be granted and be accompanied by a copy of the indictment, verdict, and judgment of the court in the case.

Easley's office releases applications for clemency, the names of the people supporting the bid for clemency and any documents granting clemency. He keeps confidential letters of support or opposition to an application for clemency and other related records.

The News & Observer has asked for access to all of these documents for several years.

"We think there is strong public interest in the arguments people make over granting pardons or clemency to convicted criminals," said Orage Quarles III, The News & Observer's president and publisher. "The decision is the governor's, but there's no reason the other material shouldn't be public."

Easley began releasing some of the documents -- but not any letters -- several months ago because he thought it was the "correct thing to do," Vanore said.

In a June 21 letter to Hugh Stevens, the newspaper's attorney, Vanore wrote that the governor's clemency records do not fall under the state's public records law. He quoted from a 2001 lawsuit, saying that the state constitution views clemency as the "exclusive prerogative" of the governor.

Vanore also referenced a lengthy 1991 letter from Gov. Jim Martin to the media, legislature and the courts, among other recipients, explaining why records regarding decisions to pardon someone or commute a sentence must remain confidential. That letter made the argument that people writing in support of or opposition to a petition for clemency would not be as candid if they knew their communication would be made public.

"Experience has taught me that if people know that what they write or say to me in confidence will reach the public eye or ear, they either will not express themselves or will do so in a way that they feel will make their views acceptable to the public," Martin wrote. "Fear of ridicule and reprisal is understandable. Too much is at stake for me to allow that fear to interfere with input into the clemency process in death penalty cases."

Staff writer Bonnie Rochman can be reached at 829-4871 or brochman@newsobserver.com.

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