Executive clemency and the irreversible power of a governor

The Tennessee Board of Parole reviews applications for parole but the governors aren’t required to follow their recommendations and don’t need their approval.
Traced to a corrupt governor's administration, one of Tennessee's most notorious scandals is also one of its best-kept secrets. Until now.
Published: May. 15, 2023 at 7:16 PM EDT|Updated: May. 18, 2023 at 3:28 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - Governors have the right to grant pardons and commutations without reason. Once the dotted line is signed, there’s no changing it or reversing the order.

The current governor also determines who is on the board that reviews the pardon applications.

For example, from 1975 to 1979, then-Gov. Ray Blanton oversaw the Tennessee Board of Pardons and Paroles.

When an inmate or their lawyer submits a clemency application, the Board of Parole reviews it and vets the application initially.

“The Board’s Executive Clemency Unit is responsible for processing all applications for commutation, pardon and exoneration in accordance with the Governor’s Executive Clemency Process Criteria,” Communications Director for the Tennessee Board of Parole Dustin Krugel said.

The governor is the only person who can grant clemency, even if the board does not approve of the release.

“Clemency applications that comply with the Governor’s criteria (which is listed on the application and updated with each administration) will be administratively reviewed by the seven-member Board to determine if a formal hearing will be conducted. If a hearing is granted, the Board will make a non-binding recommendation to the Governor.”

Communications Director for the Tennessee Board of Parole Dustin Krugel

Granting release to prisoners who were rehabilitated was a common act, but under the Blanton administration, the question became if the prisoners were ready to be released.

On Jan. 15, 1979, Blanton pardoned or issued commutations for 52 people, including 26 convicted murderers.

This move sparked even more controversy surrounding the administration and prompted a group of brave men to act before more dangerous criminals were released.

Republican Gov.-elect Lamar Alexander was one of those brave men involved in the conversation.

“I asked the [former] attorney general, Bill Leach, ‘Tell me what the constitution says about pardons. Can they be revoked?’ He said, ‘No, once they’re done, they’re done. The governor has the final say.’ and I said, ‘Could he empty the entire prison,’ and he said, ‘Yes,’” Alexander said.

The board also does not keep records of who is granted release, those are kept by the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Even after that, finding out how many people each governor has pardoned is a lengthy process.

“We do not have one source that lists all of the pardons per governor,” a representative for the state library said. “Pardons later than 1967 will be in each governor’s papers.”

The library stores information on every governor in big boxes regarding topics of their term. For example, the pardons granted could be spread between multiple boxes and have no record of the crime they committed, the information provided could just be a name.

Three of Blanton’s top aides were arrested in the cash for clemency scandal after being accused of accepting money for release.

Blanton was never charged in the scandal but after his top aides were arrested, he continued to pardon more prisoners.

In Tennessee, governors only need to report the pardons and reasons to the legislature when requested.

Former Gov. Bill Haslam granted 35 pardons, nine commutations and one exoneration from 2011 to 2019, according to the Tennessean’s reporting. Gov. Phil Bredesen granted 22 pardons, four commutations and one exoneration over his eight years in office, according to the state’s website.

Of the 22 pardons Bredesen granted, 16 of them were recommended by the BOPP.

“An additional seven pardons concern cases where the BOPP had declined a review because the technical requirements set by the Governor had not been met. No pardons were issued against the recommendation of the BOPP,” according to the state website.

In total, Blanton issued pardons and commutations to 650 people.