Gov. Romney Held Fast Against Pardons
Tuesday, June 12, 2007; 7:35 PM
BOSTON -- Decorated Iraq war veteran Anthony Circosta seemed like an ideal candidate for a pardon from then-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for his boyhood conviction for a BB gun shooting. Romney said no _ twice _ despite the recommendation of the state's Board of Pardons.
At age 13, Circosta was convicted of assault for shooting another boy in the arm with a BB gun, a shot that didn't break the skin. Circosta worked his way through college, joined the Army National Guard and led a platoon of 20 soldiers in Iraq's deadly Sunni triangle.
In 2005, as he was serving in Iraq, he sought a pardon to fulfill his dream of becoming a police officer.
"I've done everything I can to give back to my state and my community and my country and to get brushed aside is very frustrating," said Circosta, 29, of Agawam, Mass. "I'm not some shlub off the street."
In his presidential bid, Romney often proudly points out that he was the first governor in modern Massachusetts history to deny every request for a pardon or commutation during his four years in office. He says he refused pardons because he didn't want to overturn a jury.
But critics argue that the blanket policy is an abdication of a key power given governors and the president _ the ability to recognize how someone convicted of a past crime has turned their life around.
During the four years Romney was in office, 100 requests for commutations and 172 requests for pardons were filed in the state. All were denied.
"Governor Romney's view is that it would take a compelling set of circumstances to set aside the punishment and guilt resulting from a criminal trial," said Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom, who added he was not familiar with Circosta's case. "The power to pardon should only be used in extraordinary circumstances."
While he refused all requests for pardons as governor, Romney has said that could change if he's elected president.
Asked in last week's debate if he would consider pardoning Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was convicted of lying and obstructing the CIA leak investigation, Romney said: "It's worth looking at that. I will study it very closely if I'm lucky enough to be president. And I'd keep that option open."
Pardons and commutations can be fraught with political peril.
In 1995, Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, a Republican, commuted the sentence of Joseph Yandle, who spent 23 years in jail for murder. Yandle said he became addicted to heroin while serving in the Vietnam War and his addiction contributed to his crimes. Two years after his release, Yandle was sent back to prison after it was revealed he lied about being in the war.
In 1988, a furlough helped undermine the Democratic presidential bid of former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. As governor, Dukakis had supported a prison furlough program that permitted first-degree murderers time away from their cells. While on release, convicted killer Willie Horton twice raped a woman and assaulted her fiance.
Jeffrey Berry, a Tufts University political science professor, said there are few upsides to granting pardons or commuting sentences.
"You could pardon or commute a sentence, the person could go out and commit another crime," Berry said. "Behind every decision whether or not to pardon or commute looms the shadow of Willie Horton. So it's a risk.
"On the other hand, the rewards of pardoning or commuting a sentence is pretty marginal. You might make one family happy and everyone else doesn't care," he said.
Since Massachusetts has no death penalty, Romney was spared a high profile life-or-death decision. In 1992, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton left the campaign trail to oversee the execution of a cop killer, which helped the Democrat shake off his party's soft-on-crime image.
Romney approved guidelines for issuing pardons as he took office.
Among the threshold requirements was a compelling need for a pardon, such as the need to obtain a firearm, and a demonstration of "good citizenship," defined as a "demonstrated ability to lead responsible and productive life for a significant period after conviction."
The guidelines also states that pardons will rarely be issued for the purpose of obtaining a firearm if the person had been convicted of a crime involving a firearm.
During his first year in office, the Board of Pardons recommended 11 pardons and two commutations. After Romney decided against granting any, the number of hearings dropped dramatically. During the next three years, the board recommended just four pardons and a single commutation.
Romney rejected every one.
For Circosta, who works as a project manager for disaster restoration company, Romney's refusal is an ongoing source of frustration.
"I understand the political side, but I don't see in any way how it could hurt the campaign," Circosta said. "I'm decorated. I have a Bronze Star. I guess he just didn't want to sign it. It's obviously politically motivated and I don't know why."