On Nov. 15, President Donald Trump pardoned Army Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn, operator chief Edward Gallagher and former Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, and not for powder-puff stuff. Golsteyn had been charged with the murder of an Afghan man in 2010; Lorance was convicted of second-degree murder for ordering his team to fire on unarmed civilians. Gallagher was facing a court martial for posing for a photo with a dead ISIS fighter.
Proponents of justice reform pounced on the pardons, wondering why the president would spare these turkeys.
The ACLU - an organization that has specifically called for “shrink(ing) the incarcerated population system through pardons and commutations” - called the executive orders “a shameful use of presidential powers.”
Two presidential candidates - both of whom stand on platforms to decarcerate the country by 50% - knocked them as well. Former Vice President Joe Biden tweeted “Trump’s … pardon (of) service members accused or convicted of war crimes betrays the rule of law, the values that make our country exceptional.” South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said they prevented accountability.
Leaving aside the fact that neither ACLU’s nor Biden’s nor Buttigieg’s prison reform visions will ever be realized without releasing people as guilty of violence as these three soldiers, Trump’s critics need to let up on him for these acts of grace. Through this formal forgiveness, the president is establishing a new narrative of the redeemability of the “violent offender.”
The White House essentially admitted this in a statement, reminding us that Trump as president had the “authority to offer second chances to deserving individuals.”
Instead of freeing Evelyn Bozon Pappa, who was dunned with nine life sentences for importing cocaine, or Charles Duke Tanner, who lucked out with only two life sentences for selling drugs, the president chose three people who committed war crimes. It was a bold move and not a bad one, either.
At least the public doesn’t think so. In a 2018 Clarion Project poll, 77% of respondents believed members of the armed forces shouldn’t be prosecuted for war crimes. They justified that position with: “war is a stressful situation and allowances should be made.”
I see no reason why the same empathy can’t extend to people guilty of violent crimes committed here in the United States, but it doesn’t. About 71% of people oppose leniency for people who’ve been convicted of violent crimes, according to a 2016 poll by Morning Consult and Vox Media.
It doesn’t make sense. These war crimes are more heinous than many of the violent offenses that pen people today. About 3.2% of prison inmates are in for homicide-related crimes, as opposed to 100% of last week’s pardonees, if you count snapping a selfie with a homicide victim as “homicide related.” That means 96% of inmates we won’t show any mercy offended less severely than these three guys, who we don’t want prosecuted.
The argument that Golsteyn, Lorance and Gallagher are more redeemable than the average prisoner because they acted under cover of duty to protect their squads doesn’t work. The same could be said of any gang leader. In fact, the U.S. military has been infiltrated by criminal gangs, according to a 2009 article in the Yale Law Journal.
The PTSD defense doesn’t differentiate these three, either. Over half of male inmates experienced physical trauma as a child, says a 2012 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. That should qualify them for some allowances, too, like early release or absolution. Maybe these pardons will get the public thinking that if it’s good for the troops, then it’s good for the gander.
In that they challenge a narrative of irredeemability of people who commit the worst atrocities, Trump’s most recent pardons are more progress than they are problem.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.