As President George Bush's days in office dwindle, 3,000 ask for pardons or commutations

• Marion Jones and John Walker Lindh seek pardons
• Lewis 'Scooter' Libby's case highest-profile for president

President Bush, who hasn't pardoned many criminals in his time, will have a chance to spare legions before leaving office in January.

Requests for presidential pardons and commutations of prison sentences are piling up at the justice department, with more than 3,000 pending. And, if history serves as any guide, the height of pardon season arrives in the final December of any president's term.

Bush has proven to be exceptionally sparing with his pardon power. In modern times, only his father offered less clemency for the convicted. President George HW Bush, with only one term in which to act, signed just 74 pardons and 3 commutations - a fraction of what many recent presidents have allowed.

Near the end of his second term, the younger Bush has signed just 157 pardons and six commutations. He has drawn widespread attention for only one: the commutation of Lewis "Scooter" Libby's prison time after the former chief of staff for vice-president Dick Cheney was convicted of obstruction of justice.

But Bush will have plenty of opportunities before leaving office in January. Nearly 1,000 petitions for pardons and more than 2,000 bids for commutations of sentences are pending.

Marion Jones, the world-champion sprinter serving six months in jail for lying about her use of performance-enhancing drugs, is among those seeking clemency.

So is Michael Milken, the junk-bond financier who went to prison for insider trading and is free now but seeking a pardon. President Bill Clinton turned him down.

Former Democratic governor Edwin Edwards of Louisiana, serving a 10-year prison sentence for racketeering, is seeking a commutation of his sentence. So are former Republican congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California, sentenced to eight years for conspiracy to commit bribery, wire fraud and tax evasion, and John Walker Lindh, the American who served the Taliban and was captured during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, serving a 20-year prison term.

But this president's pardons have tended toward lower-profile wrong-doers.

PS Ruckman Jr, a professor of political science at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Illinois, and an expert on executive clemency, said: "If you're a betting person, and you look at the numbers and the fact that most pardons have landed in December, I think there is every reason to expect there are some pardons ahead."

The president, who moved cautiously on clemency from the start, arrived in the White House in the wake of a pardon scandal. Clinton, on his final day in office, handed out 141 pardons, including one for fugitive financier Marc Rich, a commodities trader who had fled to Switzerland facing charges of evading $48m in federal income taxes and trading oil with Iran in violation of US sanctions.

"Should I decide to grant pardons," Bush declared in February 2001, "I will do so in a fair way. I will have the highest of standards".

It was two years before Bush issued any. And like most who have benefited from Bush's clemency, they were known to few but their neighbours - people convicted of gambling, transporting a machine gun or stolen car, fraud in loan applications, embezzlement and several convicted of trafficking in cocaine or marijuana.

The president has the power to pardon people convicted of federal crimes or shorten or erase prison sentences. Clemency is generally not a declaration of innocence, the justice department says, but rather an act of mercy. It may involve clearing the name of someone who cannot find employment because of a conviction.

The proliferation of minimum mandatory sentences in the federal courts, particularly in drug convictions, has led to fast-growing numbers of bids for executive clemency in the past two decades, experts say.

Most of Florida's congressional delegation is seeking a posthumous pardon for Charles Winters, who provided aircraft for Israelis in the 1948 war of independence and was convicted under the US Neutrality Act and served prison time. The Floridian died in 1984, and his son and the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County have filed a petition for a pardon. The justice department says it is considering the eligibility of the request.

Jones, the sprinter, is seeking a pardon. The chief executive of USA Track and Field is opposing it, with Doug Logan writing to Bush: "Our country has long turned a blind eye to the misdeeds of our heroes."

In modern times, president Gerald Ford's pardon of his predecessor, president Richard Nixon, who resigned in the midst of the Watergate scandal in 1974, stands out as the most memorable. "This is an American tragedy," Ford said then. "But it is not the ultimate fate of Richard Nixon that most concerns me. My concern is the immediate future of this great country." He declared the nation's "long nightmare" over.

But during Ford's short time in the White House, according to the justice department, he granted 382 pardons and 22 commutations. Jimmy Carter, in one term: 534 pardons, 29 commutations. Ronald Reagan, in two terms: 393 pardons and 13 commutations. Bill Clinton, in two terms: 396 pardons, 61 commutations.

Through July, the justice department has collected 1,936 petitions for pardons since the start of Bush's first term, and 7,330 bids for commutation and had about another 2,000 requests pending that were left from the Clinton White House. While granting the 157 pardons and six commutations, the president has denied requests for 1,429 pardons and 5,683 commutations.

The figures underscore the rarity of Libby's clemency, his 30-month prison sentence forgiven after conviction for lying to federal authorities in the probe of who leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

"I respect the jury's verdict," Bush said in July 2007. "But I have concluded that the prison sentence given to Mr Libby is excessive."
Critics of the White House suggest that Libby still could be in line for a full pardon near the end of Bush's term. But the justice department says there is no pending request for a Libby pardon.

Bush "has been very cautious, done very little that would get him into any trouble" on pardons, said Margaret Love, a Washington attorney who represents people seeking clemency and who served as the pardon attorney at the justice department from 1990 to 1997, under the former presidents Bush and Clinton. Bush has pardoned people "you've never heard of ... Only their hometown neighbours would know who they are."

The Office of the Pardon Attorney has just six attorneys and a support staff to consider all the pardon and commutation requests.

"Although it has a challenging workload," justice department spokesman Erik Ablin says, it is committed "to giving each clemency petition ... careful review ... As the historical figures demonstrate, a commutation of sentence is an extraordinary remedy that is rarely granted".

If Bush's father was just as sparing with the power of clemency, Love said, it had more to do with his justice department recommending relatively few for consideration. With fewer than 1,500 petitions received during the father's term, he granted just 77, denied more than 1,000 and closed more than 500 without action.

"He cannot be faulted for a parsimonious pardoning record, because there were not as many applications then," Love said of her former employer. "And he did not get that many favourable recommendations from the justice department. He granted all of the pardons that were recommended to him by the justice department."

The current president's justice department won't say if all of its recommendations for clemency have been approved by Bush. But Bush, like presidents before him, has proven most forgiving in December. Nearly half of his acts of clemency came during December, by Ruckman's count.

"There is a tidal wave of petitions coming in," Love said, and despite the fact that pardons generally are granted throughout a president's time in office, "everybody seems to expect that the president is going to do a lot at the end of his term".

McClatchy newspapers

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