We were struck by this recent headline: “Gov. McAuliffe makes pardon from hospital, where he will remain overnight.” The Virginia governor was recuperating from a procedure to drain his lungs made necessary by a holiday fall from a horse, when he called reporters to his hospital room to witness a grant of “conditional pardon” (Virginia’s term for a sentence commutation) to an autistic man jailed for assaulting a police officer, to permit him to go to a secure treatment center in Florida for help rather than being warehoused for years in a Virginia prison. It is likely that McAuliffe wanted to show himself fully able to conduct state business. But it seems significant that he chose this particular official act to make the point.
The bookend episode that immediately comes to mind is Bill Clinton’s well-publicized departure from the campaign trail in 1992 to fly home to Arkansas to sign Ricky Ray Rector’s death warrant. Rector had shot himself in the head after murdering a police officer and was effectively lobotomized — and so unable to appreciate his circumstances that he asked to save the pecan pie from his last meal for “later.”
There may be no more telling sign that the “soft of crime” label is losing its power over elected officials than McAuliffe’s decision to publicize this bedside act of mercy.