Mercy and Sal DiMasi

By EDITORIAL  |  March 13, 2013


When it comes to showing a modicum of mercy to some of those convicted of federal crimes, Barack Obama is shaping up to have the worst track record of any president in recent memory.

According to the nonprofit, public-interest news site ProPublica, from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, each of Obama's predecessors granted more pardons and commutations.

The United States Constitution grants the president the unique power of clemency — the power to forgive individuals convicted of federal offenses or to mitigate their sentences.

A pardon does not erase a conviction. Rather, it offers a person a clean slate with which to resume normal life after having served the terms of their sentence, restoring, for example, the right to vote or to hold a business or professional license.

Commutation, on the other hand, allows for the early release of a prisoner.

Reagan granted one out of every three petitions for pardons; George H.W. Bush, one in 16; Bill Clinton, one in eight; George W. Bush, one in 33; and Obama, one in 46.

In terms of commutations, Reagan and Clinton ran neck and neck, granting one out of every 100 petitions. The odds of getting a commutation under Obama: one in 5000.

Proponents of lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key justice should be pleased.

But most who voted for Obama expect something more.


A good place to start would be with former Massachusetts House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, who in 2011 was convicted in federal court of what in essence was political corruption. DiMasi received an eight-year sentence, a record for Beacon Hill wrongdoing.

DiMasi is now suffering from a rare form of throat and tongue cancer that, if reports are correct, appears to be killing him.

It seems clear that DiMasi is dying because the US Justice Department, which prosecutes the accused and imprisons those found guilty, turned a blind eye to his condition. Instead of allowing DiMasi timely treatment, officials shuttled him from one prison to another in a prosecutors' version of merry-go-round. The game was intended to break DiMasi's spirit in the hopes that he would implicate other political figures — even if there were not others to implicate.

Maybe prolonged debate about "enhanced interrogation techniques" of terror suspects has coarsened public opinion, but to the Phoenix, denying a man — even a convicted felon — medical treatment for a cancer that is sure to kill him is far worse than waterboarding.

Faceless government officials — prosecutors and prison bureaucrats — superseded the sentence of a federal court and played a delayed-action game of Russian roulette with DiMasi. It is unclear what the government won, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the result may be costing DiMasi his life.

And while DiMasi's life is stained by his conviction, it is also embellished with substantial public accomplishments. These include successfully battling efforts to overturn marriage equality in Massachusetts and — ironically — fighting for the passage of the state health-care bill that served as a template for Obama's national Affordable Care Act.

"The government will not re-establish respect for the law without giving the law some claim to respect," the late legal scholar Ronald Dworkin once wrote. "It cannot do that if it neglects the one feature that distinguishes law from ordered brutality. If the government does not take rights seriously, then it does not take law seriously either."

Commuting DiMasi's sentence would not only be humane, it would be a just — even if unsatisfactory — response to denying him medical care in the first place.

The public, and Obama, should not forget: DiMasi was sentenced to eight years in prison, not death.

  Topics: The Editorial Page , Sal DiMasi, Affordable Care Act
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