https://d1m3w2qdkx2ozg.cloudfront.net/Reveal_650.mp3

This episode originally was broadcast July 6, 2019. This show brings an exciting, unexpected update to the story.

President Donald Trump has granted clemency to several controversial people, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Trump’s friend and political operative Roger Stone. But what about the people who have applied through the official process and are waiting for answers? We go beyond the headlines and tell the story of a pardons system that’s completely broken down. 

In 2019, we focused on the case of Charles “Duke” Tanner, a former boxer who was sentenced to life in federal prison after being convicted of drug trafficking. His arrest came during the war on drugs, which started in the 1980s, disproportionately putting tens of thousands of Black men in prison for decades. Tanner applied for clemency twice, his application just one among 13,000 others waiting for a decision at the federal Office of the Pardon Attorney when our show first aired. In this episode, we learn what happened after the president heard about Tanner’s case.

Next, we look at why the mechanism for granting pardons has stopped functioning. We meet a pardons advocate and a former staff member of the pardon attorney’s office and learn that the system stalled after then-President Barack Obama attempted to reduce mass incarcerations from the war on drugs. The pardon attorney’s office has been without leadership for more than four years, and the Trump White House is largely ignoring its recommendations. 

We end our show by looking at the rarest of pardons: when the person receiving a pardon is the president. Trump has tweeted that he has the authority to pardon himself, a concept that first was discussed during the Nixon administration. In that case, former President Richard Nixon eventually was pardoned by the next president, Gerald Ford. In this story, we hear Ford explain in his own words why he decided to pardon his predecessor.

Credits

Reported and produced by: Michael I Schiller and Anna Hamilton 

Data analysis: Melissa Lewis

Edited by: Taki Telonidis

Associate producer: Najib Aminy 

Production manager: Amy Mostafa

Production assistance: Brett Simpson

Sound design and music by: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, with help from Katherine Rae Mondo and Brett Simpson 

Digital producer: Sarah Mirk 

Episode art: Molly Mendoza

Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan

Host: Al Letson

Editor in chief: Matt Thompson

CEO: Christa Scharfenberg 

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Democracy Fund, the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson:

Hey, hey, hey. This is Al Letson, your favorite host in the multiverse. I absolutely love talking to you every episode because I get to bring you stories from the best. Bar none. The best team in investigative journalism. They make me look good. Out of all the incredible work we’ve done this year, there’s one story that sticks with me. It was an interview we aired just a couple weeks back with [Candace Fortman 00:00:24] Candace was a volunteer in Detroit, Michigan during the election. She was helping with the vote count. And she witnessed people trying to force their way into the room where ballots were being tallied. People screaming, “Stop the count!” You see, the Trump campaign wanted to invalidate votes from this mostly Black area. And the feeling that gave her, that a sitting president was saying that her vote and the votes of her community shouldn’t count, well, it hurt. There were a lot of stories and misinformation out about the election, but Candace was there. She saw it firsthand.

Al Letson:

This is what we do at Reveal. We push away the noise and find the voices, the paper trail, and the data that leads to the truth. The only way we can do that work is with your help. From now until the end of the year, a minimum monthly donation of $11 will get you one of our famous FACTS t-shirts. To support the work we do, text REVEAL to 474747. Standard data rates apply and you can text STOP or CANCEL at any time. Again, to donate, text the word REVEAL to 474747. And, remember, the only way forward is together.

Speaker 2:

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Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Like a lot of people, you might be wondering who will President Trump pardon next. Just before Thanksgiving, he pardoned his former national security advisor, Michael Flynn.

Speaker 4:

Flynn was convicted after special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation for lying to the FBI.

Al Letson:

There’s been talk about Trump giving pardons to his children before he leaves office and to his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, whose Ukrainian business dealings have been investigated by federal prosecutors.

Speaker 5:

Rudy Giuliani is denying reports that he is seeking a preemptive pardon from President Trump.

Al Letson:

There’s even a Justice Department investigation looking into a possible bribe for a pardon.

Speaker 5:

A scheme where two individuals lobbied top White House officials on behalf of another person who is seeking a pardon.

Al Letson:

So far, President Trump has granted clemency to 42 people. Many of those cases have been controversial. He’s pardoned friends and political allies and relied on celebrities to help make his decisions.

Speaker 6:

Tonight, granting the request made by reality star, Kim Kardashian, after her visit to the White House.

Al Letson:

This almost king-like power from the Constitution. Article two, section two, clause one says, “And he shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States except in cases of impeachment.” In today’s English, granting clemency can mean one of two things. There’s a pardon, which wipes someone’s record clean after they’ve already left prison. They get their civil rights back. The right to vote. They can even own a firearm. Then, there’s a commutation of sentencing, where the president lets you out of prison, but you still have a criminal record. The president’s power to pardon cannot be undone. Like with his former campaign advisor, Roger Stone. He’d been sentenced to 40 months in prison for witness tampering and obstruction of justice related to the Mueller investigation, but once Trump freed him, it was a done deal.

Donald Trump:

Roger Stone was not treated properly.

Al Letson:

But there’s another story. One that hasn’t been in the headlines as much. It’s a story of people who are trying to get clemency from the president. Folks who have gone through the official process and are waiting for answers. We brought you one of those stories when this show first aired in the summer of 2019 and there’s been a major development in that case. This story begins in the ring.

Al Letson:

It’s a summer night in 2003 and the civic center in Hammond, Indiana is full of people. They’re here to watch the fights.

Speaker 8:

It’s a battle of Indiana. George “Honey Boy” Blades takes on the undefeated Charles “Duke” Tanner.

Al Letson:

The battle is being broadcast on national TV. And that’s a big deal for the up and coming boxers. Charles “Duke” Tanner and George “Honey Boy” Blades, both from Indiana, are meeting in the ring for the first time.

Speaker 8:

Duke Tanner in the red trunks. He is unbeaten at 17-0. Everywhere his entourage goes, you can hear him chanting, “Who’s got next?” His nickname slash slogan is, “I got next.”

Al Letson:

The two men enter the ring and touch gloves. Honey Boy is smaller. He dances around at a frenetic pace. Duke looks rooted. Solid in his stance. He snaps out his left jab over and over. The punches come incredibly fast.

Speaker 8:

Tanner snapping back Blade’s head with that jab.

Al Letson:

Then, Duke explodes into motion, delivering body shots and combinations.

Speaker 8:

[inaudible 00:06:38] timed it perfectly with Duke Tanner!

Al Letson:

Duke catches him with a solid right, then chases Blades, raining down big punches. It looks like he’s going for the knock out.

Speaker 8:

Blades looks to be in trouble. Let’s see if he can-

Al Letson:

But Blades doesn’t go down. By the ninth round, they both look gassed. They’re holding onto each other, winded. Dripping with sweat. The fight goes a full 10 rounds. And, in the end…

Speaker 9:

Your winner, Charles “Duke” “I got next” Tanner!

Al Letson:

The decision goes to Duke.

Al Letson:

It’s been over 16 years since that fight. And Charles “Duke” Tanner has spent most of that time in federal prison.

Speaker 10:

This call is from-

Charles Tanner:

Charles Tanner.

Speaker 10:

… and inmate at a federal prison. This call is being record and is subject to monitoring. Hang up to decline the call or, to accept, dial five now.

Al Letson:

Hey, Duke. How you doing?

Charles Tanner:

Oh, man. Another blessed day, man. Another day closer to coming home.

Al Letson:

A lot was going on around the time of that fight. Duke was 23 years old, a hometown hero from Gary, Indiana. He came up through the Police Athletic League’s boxing program and the Golden Gloves. He went on to a 19-0 professional career before it all came crashing down.

Charles Tanner:

It was the best moment of my life, but I was also in so much with trying to get my family and my friends. I got caught up. That’s in a moment when I got caught up into the crime life, trying to save everybody.

Al Letson:

Duke was involved in drug trafficking and he caught in a sting by the Gang Response Investigative Team, a state a federal task force. They accused Duke of running a criminal organization called the Renegades that sold crack, powder cocaine, and marijuana.

Charles Tanner:

I was found guilty by a jury. They gave me a life sentence for it. I have life without parole. My only way home was… I hate to say it, but my only way home before would’ve been in a casket.

Al Letson:

Duke got two life sentences without the possibility of parole. Duke’s arrest back in 2004 and his two life sentences were part of America’s War on Drugs-

Speaker 12:

Drugs are menacing our society.

Al Letson:

… which was launched by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

Speaker 12:

They’re threatening our values and undercutting our institutions. They’re killing our children.

Al Letson:

Congress passed a bunch of tough-on-crime bills like the Anti-Drug Abuse Act.

Speaker 12:

Last year alone, over 10000 drug criminals were convicted and nearly 250 million dollars of their assets were seized by the DEA.

Al Letson:

New sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums put first-time offenders away for decades and there was nothing judges could do about it even if they thought the sentence was too harsh. Then came the crime bill of 1994.

Speaker 13:

When this bill is law, three strikes and you’re out will be the law of the land. The penalty for killing a law enforcement officer will be death.

Al Letson:

Three strikes law added a lot of nonviolent drug offenders to the growing federal prison population. So, let me sum it up. When Ronald Reagan took office, there were about 26000 people in federal prison. Today, there are more than 180000. And African Americans are 20 times more likely to be sentenced to life without parole for a nonviolent crime than white convicts. Mark Osler thinks that drug sentencing laws from that era were unfair.

Mark Osler:

I was a federal prosecutor in Detroit from 1995 to 2000, which meant that I did a lot of crack cases. After a while, I stopped believing in the sentences that we were getting. There was the 100-to-1 ratio back then between crack and powder cocaine that created incredibly long sentences for crack.

Al Letson:

Mark stopped being a prosecutor and started fighting sentencing laws. He took it all the way to the Supreme Court.

Mark Osler:

Specifically, working to change that ratio of 100 to 1 in crack sentencing. And we won. In 2009, we won a case in the Supreme Court. United States v. Spears. The Supreme Court held that sentencing judges could categorically reject that ratio.

Al Letson:

The next year, Congress changed the law so that sentences for crack cocaine were more in line with powder cocaine, but it didn’t apply to people who had already been convicted.

Mark Osler:

And that’s how I got interested in clemency is looking for a way to make that new law apply to people who are rotting away in prison for a sentencing rule that was now gone.

Al Letson:

It wasn’t just the sentencing. It was the way the drug war led to mass incarceration and how it disproportionately affected African American men. In Duke Tanner’s case, he got life even though it was his first offense and it was nonviolent.

Al Letson:

Is a guy like Charles “Duke” Tanner who the framers of the Constitution had in mind they put together the pardon power in the first place? Who do you think it was made for?

Mark Osler:

I think it was made for exceptional circumstances. Either broadly or individually. It was kind of a social safety valve in a way. That, if something felt unfair, it was a way of addressing that unfairness. Whether it was one person or many.

Al Letson:

The case against Duke and the Renegades was built with the cooperation of an informant who had been caught with drugs and a gun. That man wore a wire and set up a phony drug deal. He showed up with a duffel bag and a cooler filled with fake cocaine. As soon as Duke took the containers and put them in the back of his girlfriend’s Grand Am, his life changed forever. All of that to say, for Charles “Duke” Tanner, who was sentenced to life in federal prison, there’s only one person in the world with the power to get him out.

Al Letson:

What would you say to the president if you could talk to him directly?

Charles Tanner:

If I could talk to President Trump, just tell him I’m seeking this clemency based off of change. Hope in the possibility of making America great again. Like me, I’m still young. Even though I’m 38 years old, I plan on fighting again. For me, just to be able to lace the gloves up again, I won the championship of life. To share that back with other kids that’s coming up and not make the mistake that I did and do the things that I’ve done that landed me in federal prison.

Al Letson:

So, tell me. How many times have you applied for presidential clemency?

Charles Tanner:

I applied October of 2014 and I did a new one just this October of 2018 that’s pending right now.

Al Letson:

There’s a system that’s been in a place for 125 years to process clemency requests like Duke’s. It’s called the Pardon Attorney’s Office and it’s a part of the Department of Justice. They make recommendations to the White House. It’s where Duke’s application went first. Sam Morison is a lawyer who worked in that office for 13 years.

Sam Morison:

It’s a matter of trying to look at the whole person.

Al Letson:

Sam used to review applications. Now, he represents clients trying to get clemency.

Sam Morison:

The criteria in general would be things like, one, what is the nature of the offense. How serious was it? Was there a victim? How long ago did it occur? What, if any, other criminal record does the applicant have? What is their reputation in the community? To the extent that we could determine that. All those things go into the mix.

Al Letson:

Duke seems to fit the criteria. He’s a nonviolent, first-time offender. He completed over a thousand hours of educational programs in prison. He mentored other prisoners. Duke gathered 81000 signatures on a petition and a letter of support from the mayor of his hometown, Gary, Indiana. All these factors should work in his favor with the lawyers at the Justice Department.

Sam Morison:

Because if you can convince them that you are not a risk to recidivate and that you have the right attitude, that you accept responsibility for what you did and so on, and they give you a favorable recommendation… Well, that’s all the president typically is going to know about the case and so you’re very likely to get a pardon. Trump, of course, has been different. Trump has been a bit of a departure from the norm in the last 50, 60, years at least. None of the pardons or commutations that he’s granted thus far have gone through the normal advisory process.

Al Letson:

If you go to the Department of Justice’s website and count the clemency petitions that are waiting for answers, there are more than 13000 of them waiting for a yes or no. Trump inherited most of that backlog from the Obama administration and, in a few minutes, we’re going to explain how that happened, but for now, what you need to know is that this is a record-breaking number. A crazy number.

Al Letson:

When President Reagan took office, only about 500 people were waiting for an answer on their clemency request. Now, we’re over 13000. Was does that mean for the people behind bars who are waiting?

Charles Tanner:

One of my favorite quotes is that great people are created by great mistakes and they are learned from. Not from great success that’s [inaudible 00:16:24] upon. I have rehabilitated. I have done everything that my sentencing judge told me to do when he gave me a death sentence. I’ve done it and even more. What is it that we’re sitting in here for? Just rotting away, wasting tax money. When we can be out working and doing the things that we’re supposed to be doing. I’m asking for the president to give me clemency and commute my sentence and let me go home. Be a productive citizen. That’s the best way that I see to [inaudible 00:17:01]

Al Letson:

In 2016, Duke’s sentence was reduced to 30 years after changes were made to federal sentencing guidelines, but he still had nearly 12 years left to serve. For Duke and thousands of others locked up in federal prison, the chance of presidential clemency provides a ray of hope.

Charles Tanner:

I have the sleepless nights, but I stay in prayer. Actually, right now, I’m fasting right now anyway. So, we’re just praying. We’re just praying and waiting. I got-

Al Letson:

And just like that, his phone call was cut off.

Al Letson:

Praying and waiting. There’s not much else he can do at this point. But there are other people who are trying to do something.

Amy Povah:

I’ve got so many who have double life sentences, life sentences, for a first offense and that should be the biggest red flag of all for a society. Clemency is really the only thing that can correct a huge problem on a big scale.

Al Letson:

You’re listening to Reveal.

Speaker 17:

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Speaker 2:

Support for Reveal comes from Allbirds. While the holidays are going to look a little different this year, one thing remains the same. They’re not the easiest on our planet. With a little more consciousness around the gifts we give, we can all help reduce that impact. Allbirds has you covered with their signature line of cozy shoes made from merino wool, new apparel line, and Trino socks and undies, which make for perfect stocking stuffers. With Allbirds, feel confident knowing you’re wearing a product that’s doing right by you and the planet. Head to allbirds.com today for the perfect gift. Give light, tread lighter. Allbirds.

Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Today, we’re talking about presidential clemency. When we first aired this show back in 2019, Charles Duke Tanner, a former pro boxer, was serving a 30 year sentence in federal prison for a nonviolent first-time drug offense. He filed a petition with the Pardon Attorney’s Office and was waiting, like 13000 other people, for news from the president. And there were a lot of people rooting for Duke Tanner, including Amy Povah.

Amy Povah:

We’ve sent in the clemency petition, as you know, and then the supplemental-

Al Letson:

She’s one the phone with Duke right now. He calls her often from prison. Amy helped Duke file his most recent application for clemency.

Amy Povah:

And so you’re anticipating a return. A big return of Duke Tanner, heavyweight boxer, back in the ring.

Charles Tanner:

Yes. For sure. Only thing is, I would be a different weight class.

Amy Povah:

Well, I better have a front-row seat.

Charles Tanner:

Oh, come on. You’re going to be the one walking out with me when I come out. When we come out.

Amy Povah:

Aw. Well, I can’t wait.

Al Letson:

We’re inside Amy’s dining room on an overcast day in Malibu, California. It’s her makeshift office, covered with stacks of paper, boxes full of letters from prisoners and their supporters. Amy runs a volunteer nonprofit called the Can Do Clemency Foundation. She started it to help women serving life sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. Now, she’s helping men get clemency, too. Nonviolent drug offenders like Duke. Over the years, she’s helped a lot of people. She’s worked with them to fill out petitions, collect letters of support. She’s even held vigils in front of the White House. Josephine Ledezma. She is an absolute sweetheart. She volunteers in the chapel. She’s serving life without parole.

Al Letson:

Amy’s standing in front of the White House, holding a blue blow-up photo of a woman named Josephine Ledezma. Amy calls her Josie. In the picture, Josie is wearing a maroon cap and gown from one of the many programs she completed in prison.

Amy Povah:

She’s already served over 20 years. She’s been in since 1992. It’s time to reunite her. Her children were small when she went into prison. Now, they’re all grown and they have families.

Al Letson:

Now, her kids have kids. Josie’s got 10 grandchildren. Just like Duke, Josie was sentenced to life in prison for drug trafficking. It was her first offense. A nonviolent crime. Josie and Duke are two of the dozens of people Amy is working with to get clemency.

Amy Povah:

I’ve got so many who have double life sentences, life sentences, for a first offense and that should be the biggest red flag of all for a society. Clemency is really the only thing that can correct a huge problem on a big scale. People come out of prison every single day who have committed murder or arson or bank robbery or all kinds of different crimes who get less time than a lot of people serving life for pot. They’ve got more time than someone who has priors and has raped and even killed somebody.

Al Letson:

Most of the people she’s helping are in prison because of the War on Drugs. When it started in the 1980s, about 30000 people were in federal prisons. By President Obama’s first year in office, that number had ballooned to more than 200000. Obama saw this as a problem, so in 2014, he started something called the Clemency Project.

Barack Obama:

It does not make sense for a nonviolent drug offender to be getting 20 years, 30 years, in some cases life, in prison.

Al Letson:

The Clemency Project was designed to get nonviolent first-time drug offenders out of prison after they paid their debt to society.

Barack Obama:

It is my strong belief that, by exercising these presidential powers, I have the chance to show people what a second chance can look like.

Al Letson:

Under the program, Obama did let a lot of people out of prison. He gave out 1715 commutations of sentence. Compared to George W. Bush, who only out 11. But even with the Clemency Project, a lot of people who met the criteria were not released.

Amy Povah:

Very early on, I started seeing perfect candidates getting denied. Women who were first offenses, who were minor participants, and right then, I was just like, this is not going well.

Sam Morison:

It was kind of hit or miss.

Al Letson:

That’s Sam Morison, who we heard from earlier. He worked in the Pardon Attorney’s Office from 1997 to 2010.

Sam Morison:

He granted… It was 1700 and something commutations. That’s a big number, but not in comparison to the size of the federal prison population it’s not a big number. He could easily have granted 20000, not 1700. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the number of people who, on the face of it, qualify.

Al Letson:

One of the cases that was rejected was the boxer, Charles “Duke” Tanner.

Charles Tanner:

I had been there 10 years and I had clear conduct. It was a nonviolent crime. My first arrest in my life. My case manager was like, hey, this is for you. Let’s push for this. So, we put it in September of ’16 and I got denied. They didn’t give me a reason why. They just said denied and you have one year to follow up. Now, my only co-defendant, who went to trial with me, got granted clemency. It was a big pill to swallow for me on that one.

Al Letson:

Why do you think you were denied if your co-defendant actually got it?

Charles Tanner:

I don’t know. Actually, my co-defendant… He wasn’t a first-time offender, but he got it and he’s home now. Thankful. I watched a lot of people get it and they didn’t fit all of the [inaudible 00:26:14] but they got granted clemency somehow.

Al Letson:

The chaos of Clemency Project 2014, who got help and who didn’t, it was frustrating for a lot of people. Including the pardon attorney at the time, Deborah Leff. She resigned in 2016. She wrote a letter saying her office was underfunded and understaffed and that the White House lawyers weren’t taking her recommendations. There hasn’t been a pardon attorney since she left. Just a string of acting pardon attorneys that inherited the backlog.

Sam Morison:

She simply wasn’t given the resources to do what she ostensibly was supposed to be doing, so she got frustrated and said, “I’m not going to do this anymore.”

Al Letson:

Sam Morison says those acting pardon attorneys are still making recommendations, but most of the time, the White House isn’t paying attention.

Al Letson:

If the White House is ignoring the recommendations of the Pardon Attorney’s Office, what’s the point of having one? I mean, are we just burning taxpayer money? They wouldn’t give us an interview. It’s kind of a black box.

Sam Morison:

Yeah, that’s intentional. They want it to be a black box. I mean, you’re right. If he’s going to ignore them, then it’s kind of a pointless exercise.

Al Letson:

Right now, we’re just a little north of 13000 petitions that the Justice Department is sending in to the White House. So, what does that mean? Are these petitions just sitting in a drawer somewhere in the White House? Is anything going to happen to move through all of these petitions?

Sam Morison:

It doesn’t mean that they are all yet at the White House. Those cases are all going to be at one stage or another of the investigation process. Eventually, a recommendation will be written in each one and it will make its way to the White House. But it doesn’t mean they’re all there yet. I can’t tell you and the Justice Department won’t tell you where all those cases are at any particular time, so we don’t know how many of those are at the White House right now.

Al Letson:

Amy Povah knows what it’s like to ask for clemency and to wait while a petition works its way through the system. That’s because, as a young woman, she was sentenced to 24 years in federal prison for conspiracy to traffic narcotics.

Amy Povah:

With conspiracy, even if you don’t sell it, even if you don’t import it, if you’re associated with somebody who does, the conspiracy law… That’s the trigger word.

Al Letson:

In Amy’s case, her ex-husband ran an ectasy operation, manufacturing millions of pills of the party drug. Now, he was caught in the early ’90s and cooperated with law enforcement and he only got four years in prison. Amy, on the other hand, was not directly involved with the drug business, but after her husband was arrested, she collected some of the drug money. She did not cooperate with the FBI and got sentenced to 24 years. Amy was sent to FCI Dublin, a federal prison in northern California. She remembers a phone call with her mother not long after she got there.

Amy Povah:

I wasn’t expecting to break down, but I just completely broke down. And them my mom was like, “What? What’s the matter? What’s the matter?” Because I was crying. And I said… I just remember almost screaming. I was like, “I’m in prison!”

Al Letson:

After nine years behind bars, Amy gets called into a case manager’s office. As she makes her way through the prison, she fears the worst.

Amy Povah:

So, I just kept thinking, oh my god. What could’ve gone wrong? Maybe Mom and Dad. Maybe something’s wrong with them.

Al Letson:

Her case manager was frazzled.

Amy Povah:

She said, “I need you to sit down. I’ve got to set you up on probation. I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to do that. Got to make an airplane reservation for you.” And I said, “Why?” She just looked at me and she said, “You’re going home.” Those three words. I was just like, “What?” She said, “Finally.” She said, “You received clemency and I have to have you out of here by 5:00.” She kept telling me to sit down and I would sit down and then I would pop out of my chair like a jack in the box.

Al Letson:

Amy’s sentence was commuted by President Bill Clinton in 2000. She had put in an application a few years earlier and, after nearly a decade, Amy was suddenly free.

Amy Povah:

So, it says, “To all to whom these presents shall come greeting-

Al Letson:

She’s reading from the actual signed clemency document. It’s what you’d expect from such a grand declaration of freedom. Faded cream-colored paper. Signature in black ink. A gold seal. Presidential clemency petitions are something Amy’s gotten very familiar with over the years. Both in prison and after she was freed, as an advocate for other people trying to get one.

Al Letson:

Amy thinks Duke Tanner has a strong case for clemency. They talk a lot. Sometimes twice a day.

Charles Tanner:

For Trump to give it to me, it’ll shock the world, I think.

Amy Povah:

Wow. Not to mention the fact-

Al Letson:

It’s Thursday afternoon and there is a lot going on at Amy’s.

Amy Povah:

You’re not going to believe this. But now he’s got… I shouldn’t have taken your call because Josie’s arriving.

Al Letson:

Their phone call is interrupted. Amy’s got a visitor. She heads to the back door and walks down a few steps.

Josephine Ledezma:

Oh my goodness. Look at you.

Amy Povah:

Look at you! Oh my god. We made it!

Josephine Ledezma:

We made it. You are so right. Oh my goodness.

Al Letson:

It’s Josie Ledezma, the woman Amy was trying to get out of prison at that White House vigil. The last time they saw each other, they were serving time together in federal prison. That was 19 years ago.

Josephine Ledezma:

Gosh.

Amy Povah:

Here. Go ahead, sweetie.

Josephine Ledezma:

This is beautiful. Oh my goodness.

Amy Povah:

Wasn’t it fun to be able to drive now?

Josephine Ledezma:

Yes. Especially out here. I’m like, oh my god. I didn’t know this existed. It’s gorgeous.

Amy Povah:

Well, you’re welcome any time.

Josephine Ledezma:

Thank you.

Al Letson:

Josie was released by President Obama after 24 years behind bars.

Amy Povah:

Oh, god.

Josephine Ledezma:

Oh my god. It’s so nice to see you.

Amy Povah:

What a journey.

Josephine Ledezma:

Yes, definitely. Definitely.

Al Letson:

The two women walk inside and sit at Amy’s kitchen table. Posters with faces of prisoners lean against the wall. Amy and Josie are two of the lucky ones. Most people who apply don’t get clemency.

Josephine Ledezma:

It’s awesome to be home. To be out. To be able to drive and feel the air hit my face and be able to just see freedom. But one of my pains is that I still have people in there that I love. Sisters. People that I grew up with. That are still in there. I got a chance to come home. I think they deserve a chance to come home also.

Al Letson:

A chance to come home. That’s what Amy and Josie want for the nonviolent prisoners of the War on Drugs. People like Duke. His son, Charles III, was just two years old when Duke got locked up.

Charles III:

Hello, President Trump. I would like to ask you to please release my dad from prison.

Al Letson:

This is a video that Duke’s son made and posted to YouTube.

Charles III:

I know that he made a huge mistake and he really looks back on his mistake and regrets it. I feel like he would never do it again. My dad’s been in my life ever since I was young. We have a great relationship. He’s been helping me every step of the way. He helps me and my friends. He taught me right from wrong. I would just please want you to release my father from prison. Thank you.

Al Letson:

What has it been like being apart from him and not being able to be there as he grows up?

Charles Tanner:

That’s the worst thing that I lost. Being there to physically be there for him. To teach him how to tie his shoes. To teach him how to drive. To see him at his sports events. Just teaching him how to be a man. But I didn’t let prison stop it. I used every tool that we have… as far as the phone, the email, letters, visits… to enrich his mind. We have a beautiful relationship, but to be there with him and to get him ready to send off to college and become a real man. I need to be there in his presence to show him, even though I showed him so much from inside these walls.

Al Letson:

So, that’s where we left it back in the summer of 2019, which seems like forever ago. A little over a year goes by. We don’t hear much from Duke. And then something unexpected.

Speaker 21:

An ex-boxer from Gary, Indiana serving life in prison is now instead a free man.

Speaker 22:

The president granted him clemency.

Al Letson:

On the 21st of October, President Trump commuted Duke’s sentence. Duke walked out of the prison in Pennsylvania that same day. The next morning, Reveal producer, Michael Schiller, caught up with Duke on the phone. He was at the airport in Philadelphia, waiting for a flight home.

Charles Tanner:

What’s up, Mike?

Michael Schiller:

Duke!

Charles Tanner:

What’s going on, Mike?

Michael Schiller:

Duke!

Charles Tanner:

Man, listen, man. It finally came, brother. Oh, man. I’m so happy for you. That’s wonderful. Wonderful. How you feeling?

Michael Schiller:

Right now, man, I feel great, man. I’m sitting next to my son.

Charles Tanner:

Oh, wow.

Michael Schiller:

It’s just a great feeling, man. That’s what really made me know it was real. Once I saw him. I got to embrace him and hug him as long as I wanted to. I got to drop some tears, man. I’ve been trying to cry for 16 years and they wouldn’t come out.

Al Letson:

So, why Duke Tanner out of the 13000 people waiting? The Pardon Attorney’s Office didn’t respond when we asked. Duke credits Amy Povah and other supporters for getting the attention of the White House. We know he was one of five nonviolent offenders serving long sentences who were released that day. It was less than two weeks before the election. A video of Duke reuniting with his son ended up in a campaign ad for Trump.

Speaker 24:

This moment was 16 years in the making. Charles “Duke” Tanner embracing his 18 year old son.

Al Letson:

A few years later, I checked in with Duke just to see how he’s adjusting to life.

Al Letson:

Man, it’s good to see you in the flesh via Zoom.

Charles Tanner:

Oh, yeah, man. [inaudible 00:37:05] praise, and glory be to God. I’m happy to be here.

Al Letson:

How does it feel to come home? What did that feel like?

Charles Tanner:

I was just actually having a conversation about my freedom and it was just like… Some people feel like it’s not real, but I feel it’s real. I know I’m here. I’m free.

Al Letson:

Can you walk me through it? What happened?

Charles Tanner:

I was going through a normal day. I’m just sitting in my cell, waiting for the count to clear to go use the email or use the phone and go on with my day. My case manager, him and a couple of other officers, came and he said, “Hey, we need to talk to you in the back.” So, I’m like… When more than one officer comes, usually it’s trouble. But I know I hadn’t done anything, so I walked to the back. And the guy said, “We have to get you out of here.” I said, “Get me out of here? Where I’m going?” And he said, “The president signed off on your clemency a couple hours ago and you get an immediate release. You can’t even go back to your cell because you’re not supposed to be here.” Once again, I just started praying. I was sweating. Next thing you know, I was in a hotel. Free.

Al Letson:

Wow. It must be complex to get out of prison and to be given clemency by President Donald Trump and to come home and the political storm that’s happening all over the country. What does that feel like? To be in the center of that storm.

Charles Tanner:

I mean, I’m a man of faith and I’m a man of integrity. I feel that I was raised right and I’m going to give gratitude to what gratitude is deserved. What he’s done for me, Donald J. Trump, that day when he released me back to my son, nothing else on this earth for the rest of my life could overcome that feeling. If you look at what happened, it wasn’t just about clemency. He gave me a second chance. That’s bigger than politics. To me.

Al Letson:

So, how is it being back with your son?

Charles Tanner:

Oh, it’s a beautiful thing. He’s been driving me around. But he’s in college. It’s about an hour and a half away, but he comes home on the weekend and we get to spend time together. We’re still learning each other. We’re having fun. I asked him, “I’m getting on your nerves?” He said, “No, Dad. You’re not getting on my nerves.” I call him early in the morning. I’m still on prison time. I wake up 5:30 AM and I get my phone and I call him and wake him up. He said, “Dad, I don’t go to class until like three hours later.” But I just get to see him. It’s a beautiful thing.

Al Letson:

You got any plans for the holidays?

Charles Tanner:

I just want to get everybody together, wherever I decide to eat… everywhere that I decide to eat and I just want to let everybody know how thankful I am for what they’ve done for me when I was away and the best gift that they gave me was their prayers. As well as how thankful I am to be back to make them proud of me again and be successful in all my ways. That’s it. And enjoy the food and get ready to go to training camp.

Al Letson:

Think about getting back in the ring?

Charles Tanner:

Hands down. Hopefully they come up with a vaccine soon. And my goal is September 1st, 2021 to step my foot back in that ring again. That’s the day I got locked up. It was taken away 16 years ago, so it’ll be 17 years after that that I check in and see if I still got it.

Al Letson:

Well, listen. On that day, I will be ringside. You let me know when it’s happening and, wherever it is, I will fly and be there and be ringside.

Charles Tanner:

Don’t blink. Don’t go to the bathroom. Because it might be a quick night.

Al Letson:

There you go. There you go.

Al Letson:

We’ll be following Duke’s return to professional boxing and watching what happens with the ongoing fight for presidential clemency. There are still more than 13000 petitions sitting at the Pardon Attorney’s Office, waiting for a decision.

Al Letson:

The elephant in the room these days. Will President Trump try and pardon himself? When we come back, we hear from one man who pardoned an American president.

Speaker 25:

So, whether Nixon agreed to the pardon, the fact that he accepted it is a confession.

Al Letson:

You’re listening to Reveal.

Speaker 26:

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Al Letson:

If you like what we do and you want to help, well, it’s pretty simple. Just write us a review on Apple Podcasts. It’s easy and only takes a few seconds. Just open the Apple Podcasts app on your phone, search for Reveal, then scroll down to where you see write a review. And, there, tell them how much you love the host. Your review makes it easier for listeners to find us and, well, it really does make a difference. If you do it, you will get a personal thank you from me. Like, right now. Like, thank… Not him. You. Yes, you. Thank you so much. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. All right.

Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m At Letson. Today, we’re talking about presidential clemency. The power the president has to set people free from federal prison or scrub their record clean if they’ve gotten out. President Trump has granted clemency to 42 people. A lot fewer than Barack Obama, a lot more than George W. Bush. But while the number may not be remarkable, the way Trump talks about pardons is.

Al Letson:

The word pardon appeared in the Mueller report 63 times. It describes how pardons were discussed for Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, and former campaign chair, Paul Manafort. Both were convicted of felonies, but talk of pardons hasn’t only been about Trump’s associates. In June of 2018…

Speaker 27:

From the president this morning-

Al Letson:

Trump even tweeted…

Speaker 27:

That he the, quote, “absolute right to pardon himself.” He goes on to write, “But why would I when I’ve done nothing wrong?”

Al Letson:

As outrageous as a president pardoning himself may sound, this isn’t the first time it’s come up. Think back to the ’70s and Watergate.

Speaker 28:

The burglars broke through a fire escape door that led to the Committee’s offices. Democratic officials today held a series of meeting to talk about tighter security-

Al Letson:

The break-in at the Office of the Democratic National Committee and the Nixon administration’s attempts to cover it up threatened to bring down the president. There was an investigation, Senate hearings, and in March of 1974, a grand jury indicted several of Richard Nixon’s aides of trying to interfere with the Watergate investigation. Secretly, there had been a vote by the grand jury to characterize Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator in obstruction of justice.

Al Letson:

Dan Kobil is a professor of law at Capital University in Ohio. Dan says, “In the final days of Nixon’s presidency, White House aides are starting to think about the president’s exit strategy.” This was when Nixon goes from being the person who grants pardons to someone who could benefit from one. The first mention of a pardon for Nixon comes on August 1st when Secretary of State Al Haig calls a meeting with the vice president, Gerald Ford.

Dan Kobil:

Now, you have to remember this is Ford as vice president, who has no role in pardons at all. And so he’s got Haig giving him a handwritten document that says that a president can pardon prior to indictment in the federal system.

Al Letson:

Haig spells out a few options and he tells Ford that the president can pardon himself or be pardoned by his successor. Ford is surprised by this and for good reason. It’s the first time a US president has ever tested the waters of pardoning himself. But it never comes to that. Instead, on August 8th, 1974…

Richard Nixon:

Good evening. This is the 37th time I have spoken to you from this office.

Al Letson:

Facing possible impeachment, Richard Nixon resigns.

Richard Nixon:

Therefore, I shall resign the presidency, effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as president at that hour in this office.

Al Letson:

Ford becomes president and he’s eager to put Nixon behind him.

Gerald Ford:

My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.

Al Letson:

He wants to get to work on problems his administration has inherited. Unemployment, high inflation, and a domestic energy crisis. But the country is still obsessed with Watergate and the public wants to know what will happen to Nixon. Almost a month into his presidency, Ford does what he never imagined doing.

Gerald Ford:

Serious allegations and accusations hang like a sword over our former president’s head.

Al Letson:

He pardons Nixon.

Gerald Ford:

Through the pardon power conferred upon me by the Constitution, have granted, and by these presents do grant, a full, free, and absolute pardon onto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States, which he-

Al Letson:

Years later, as a law professor writing about clemency, Dan saw this move as the most constitutionally significant pardon in US history and he thought wouldn’t it be cool to ask Ford why, in the end, he decided to do it?

Gerald Ford:

Hello!

Dan Kobil:

Good afternoon, President Ford. This is Dan Kobil, professor at Capital law school.

Al Letson:

When we first aired this show last year, it was the first time this 2001 interview was made public.

Gerald Ford:

Yes. Nice talking to you, Dan.

Dan Kobil:

Nice talking to you. Thank you for-

Al Letson:

Ford says when he first came into office, he wasn’t leaning towards pardoning Nixon. Then came his first presidential press conference on August 28th, 1974.

Gerald Ford:

Please sit down. Good afternoon. At the outset, I have a very-

Dan Kobil:

He felt that the country had a number of significant economic problems, foreign policy problems-

Speaker 32:

Would you use your pardon authority if necessary?

Dan Kobil:

… and yet the only questions that the press seemed to be interested in, in his view, pertained to what will happen to Richard Nixon?

Speaker 33:

May I just follow on Helen’s question. Are you saying, sir, that the option of a pardon for Former President Nixon is still an option that you will consider depending on what the courts will do?

Gerald Ford:

Of course. I make the final decision and-

Gerald Ford:

Well, as I returned from that press conference where I was convinced that the only way to solve the problem was to think about granting a pardon-

Dan Kobil:

And that’s your first press conference where you had several pardon questions.

Gerald Ford:

I had many pardon questions. So, I went back to the Oval Office and, as I recall, I asked Phil Buchen-

Al Letson:

Phil Buchen was a chief White House lawyer.

Gerald Ford:

… to explore my authority in the first place and to report back to me. Because I was very frank. I was considering the possibly providing it would achieve what I felt was necessary. Getting Mr. Nixon’s problems off my desk.

Dan Kobil:

So, that press conference really triggered your fear of realistic consideration right off that bat, huh?

Gerald Ford:

Absolutely. I was dismayed that the press was so preoccupied with that that I could visualize that every press conference that followed for the next X number of months would be the same. I thought that was unfortunate from the country’s point of view.

Al Letson:

Ford was in a bind. The public wanted a resolution. Nixon was threatening to plead not guilty if he was prosecuted, promising to drag a messy trial through the courts.

Speaker 34:

President Gerald R. Ford summoned newsmen to the White House suddenly this Sunday morning and announced that he was granting a full, free, and absolute pardon to Former President Richard M. Nixon.

Dan Kobil:

Now, you’ve been quoted as calling the pardon decision “the most difficult of my life ever.”

Gerald Ford:

I had a visceral feeling that the public animosity to Mr. Nixon was so great that there would be a lack of understanding. And, the truth is, that’s the way it turned out. The public and many leaders, including dear friends, didn’t understand it at the time.

Dan Kobil:

His very dear friend, who had been his press secretary for years, resigned when he granted the pardon to Nixon. He asked him not to resign, but the day that he did that, he said, “I cannot work for you any longer,” and he resigned. And that was a huge personal loss to Ford. He got tremendous pushback, I think, for having granted the pardon.

Al Letson:

Do you think he expected that? I mean, it’s such a controversial decision, even looking back now. Did Ford understand the consequences of that decision?

Dan Kobil:

He knew that there were so many people who hated Richard Nixon who would never forgive him for pardoning him. He suggested that he wanted to grant the pardon quickly because it was like ripping a bandage off a wound. Better to do quickly and get the pain out at once rather than do it slowly or drag it out.

Al Letson:

And the outcry wasn’t because of the pardon alone.

Gerald Ford:

I was criticized that I didn’t get an admission by President Nixon that he was in error and so forth.

Al Letson:

But Ford didn’t look at it that way.

Dan Kobil:

One of the very interesting personal facts about Ford is that he, for the rest of his life, kept in his wallet a page from an opinion of the Supreme Court in a case called Burdick v. United States.

Gerald Ford:

I have the card in my pocket, which I carry with me. Let me try to find it here.

Dan Kobil:

Is that the Burdick case?

Gerald Ford:

That justice has found that a pardon, quote, “carries an imputation of guilt, acceptance, a confession of it,” end quote. So, whether Nixon agreed to the pardon, the fact that he accepted it is a confession.

Dan Kobil:

I ultimately came away from my interview with him convinced that he had acted out of principle. He did what he believed was best for the country as opposed for best for himself. And, in fact, the fact that critics who had said that he had done the wrong thing with Nixon in retrospect had changed their mind and said that Ford had done the right thing for the country.

Dan Kobil:

Were you ever worried that maybe Nixon had done anything else that you didn’t know about that you’d be pardoning him for?

Gerald Ford:

That was plenty.

Dan Kobil:

That’s wonderful. So, that was enough, in other words.

Gerald Ford:

[inaudible 00:55:04] obstruction of justice. That was ample.

Al Letson:

Dan’s interview with President Ford is from 2001. Ford passed away five years later at the age of 93.

Al Letson:

Our lead producer for this week’s show as Michael I. Schiller. The Nixon-Ford segment was produced by Anna Hamilton. [inaudible 00:55:35] edited the show. Thanks to Melissa Lewis for help with the data, to associate producer Najib Aminy, and to our production manager, Amy Mostafa. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Original score and sound design by the dynamic duo, J Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man, Arruda. They had help this week from Brett Simpson. Our digital producer is Sarah Mirk. Our CEO is Crista Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor in chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by [Camarado Lightning 00:56:06]. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson and, remember, there is always more to the story.

Speaker 35:

From PRX.

Michael I Schiller

Michael I Schiller is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. His Emmy Award-winning work spans animation, radio and documentary film.

“The Dead Unknown,” a video series he directed about the crisis of America's unidentified dead, earned a national News and Documentary Emmy Award, national Edward R. Murrow Award and national Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award.

His 2015 animated documentary short film “The Box,” about youth solitary confinement, was honored with a video journalism award from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California chapter, a San Francisco International Film Festival Golden Gate Award and a New Orleans Film Festival special jury prize, and it was nominated for a national News and Documentary Emmy for new approaches.

Schiller was one the producers of the pilot episode of the Peabody Award-winning Reveal radio show and podcast. He continues to regularly produce audio documentaries for the weekly public radio show, which airs on over 450 stations nationwide. Schiller is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Taki Telonidis is the senior supervising editor for Reveal. Previously, he was the media producer for the Western Folklife Center, where he created more than 100 radio features for NPR’s "All Things Considered," "Weekend Edition" and other news magazines. He has produced and directed three public television specials, including "Healing the Warrior’s Heart," a one-hour documentary that explores how the ancient spiritual traditions of our nation’s first warriors, Native Americans, are helping today’s veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Telonidis also was senior content editor for NPR’s "State of the Re:Union." Before moving to the West, he worked for NPR in Washington, where he was senior producer of "Weekend All Things Considered" between 1994 and 1998. His television and radio work has garnered a George Foster Peabody Award, three Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards and the Overseas Press Club Award for breaking news. Telonidis is based in Salt Lake City.

Melissa Lewis is a data reporter for Reveal. Prior to joining Reveal, she was a data editor at The Oregonian, a data engineer at Simple and a data analyst at Periscopic. She is an organizer for the Portland chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association. Lewis is based in Oregon.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda

Fernando Arruda is the sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. A composer and multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the scoring, recording, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He co-founded a film scoring boutique called Manhattan Composers Collective and worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio geared toward media and ad spots. Arruda worked with clients such as Marvel and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck + Company, Buck and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles such as Krychek, Dark Inc., the New York Arabic Orchestra and Art&Sax. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker.” Arruda has scored extensively for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which have premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. Arruda is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Najib Aminy is a producer for Reveal. Previously, he was an editor at Flipboard, a news aggregation startup, and helped guide the company’s editorial and curation practices and policies. Before that, he spent time reporting for newspapers such as Newsday and The Indianapolis Star. He is the host and producer of an independent podcast, "Some Noise," which is based out of Oakland, California, and was featured by Apple, The Guardian and The Paris Review. He is a lifelong New York Knicks fan, has a soon-to-be-named kitten and is a product of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism. Aminy is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Amy Mostafa is the production manager for Reveal. She is pursuing a master's degree in journalism with a focus on audio and data at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is a Dean’s Merit Fellow and an Islamic Scholarship Fund scholar. She has reported on science, health and the environment in Anchorage for Alaska Public Media and on city government in Berkeley and San Francisco for KQED. Her work also has appeared on KALW and KALX.  Mostafa holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and public policy. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.