Every quarter, we offer a wrongful conviction roundup, recounting a sample of hard fought exonerations over the past three months. Typically, the post is a celebration of the quarter’s newly innocent and a description of their challenging journeys to exoneration. This quarter, however, with a Department of Justice that is anti-justice and an administration that steadily assaults civil rights, we will instead discuss a perversion of justice that occurred last month in the name of innocence—an unjust and deeply immoral exoneration. President Trump’s pardon of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was a slap in the face to people who tirelessly work for justice, as well as a slap to anyone who believes in civil rights.
Arpaio was convicted in July of contempt of court for continuing to use racially discriminatory immigration enforcement tactics. In doing so, he brazenly violated a judge’s order to stop racially profiling people. Specifically, District Court Judge Susan Bolton found Arpaio “willfully violated” a court order to stop racially profiling suspected immigrants—stopping Latino drivers on the suspicion, based solely on race/ethnicity, that they were in the country illegally. The court found Arpaio directed his subordinates “to continue to detain persons for whom no criminal charges could be filed.” The court held Arpaio in contempt, a misdemeanor. In addition to this conviction, Arpaio is also just an all-around despicable man. He ran a jail—a place where people are placed while they await trial—like a concentration camp (his words), where prisoners baked to death at unlivable temperatures, sex scandals were prevalent and mishandled, and racist abuse and fatal mistreatment by the guards was tolerated. But he has been a huge Trump supporter since the early days of Trump’s candidacy, so narcissist that Trump is, he chose to pardon this man.
The pardon is troubling on so many levels, but for people working for justice, it is especially disturbing that Trump absolved Arpaio of blatantly violating people’s civil rights. A presidential pardon is an extraordinary remedy that bypasses the usual challenging and lengthy court journey to proving innocence. Presidential pardons are extremely rare. According to Department of Justice statistics, George W. Bush granted 7.6% of the pardon petitions he received. Obama granted 6.2%. And so far, of the 394 petitions Trump has received, he has granted just this one.
To use this rare remedy to exonerate a racist bigot who flouts court orders and people’s basic civil rights is an affront to justice and to everything our Constitution stands for. And, as an article in Slate observed, “The pardon wasn’t just a rejection of the civil rights claims of his victims, but a shocking insult to every judge in America who has ever attempted to enforce a court order against someone who believes he answers to nobody.” The Arizona Justice Project summarized, “Sheriff Arpaio, a law enforcement officer, took an oath to respect the Constitution’s vital constraints on his enforcement powers. He was convicted of deliberately choosing to violate those constraints. His pardon was not an act of clemency or mercy. It was an act of endorsement and even applause for his willful abuse of power.”
Contrast that pardon with the huge amount of work that goes into freeing actually innocent people. The Innocence Project estimates that the average length of time a wrongfully convicted person serves before being exonerated by DNA evidence is 14 years. And, of course, that just counts the successful exonerations. There are countless more people serving time who are unable to prove their convictions were erroneous, particularly those convicted of the types of crimes where DNA evidence is not available to demonstrate their innocence. Additionally, the effort to free the wrongfully convicted involves huge expenses, often including experts, lab analysis, investigators, and attorney time. That Trump felt Arpaio was worthy to jump the queue and deserving of a presidential pardon is a reminder of the dangers of his presidency. We were founded as a nation of laws, not of people. Trump is turning that concept on its head.