Pardons and Restorative Justice

Pardons have been used at both the state and federal levels as a means of rectifying past wrongs.  Because pardons give governments a method of overriding a conviction for wrongdoing, they are a particularly effective remedial method when the conviction was a result of an abuse of the justice system.  Below are numerous examples of state and federal pardons used to achieve restorative justice.

State Pardons

Thomas and Meeks Griffin, South Carolina
Tom Joyner is the host of the nationally syndicated radio program The Tom Joyner Morning Show, and is heard daily by millions of listeners. He was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame in 2008. His grandfather, Oscar “Doc” Joyner is a remembered Pullman porter who became a medical doctor. Joyner has recently witnessed state officials sign the document officially pardoning his two grand uncles, Thomas and Meeks Griffin, for the 1913 murder of a white farmer.

Nearly 100 years had passed since his great-uncles, Thomas Griffin and Meeks Griffin, were wrongfully executed in South Carolina. On Wednesday, a board voted 7-0 to pardon both men, clearing their names in the 1913 killing of a veteran of the Confederate Army. It marks the first time in history that South Carolina has issued a posthumous pardon in a capital murder case. Joyner made the journey to Columbia, South Carolina, with his wife, his sons, his brother and nieces and nephews.


Cleveland Sellers, South Carolina
In 1968, Cleveland Sellers was arrested in connection with what would become known as the Orangeburg Massacre. Police allege Sellers instigated a confrontation between the law officers and the protesters, resulting in the death of three student protesters. Sellers, a former SNCC chairman, was convicted and spent several years in prison. In 1993 Sellers was pardoned by the Pardon Board of the State of South Carolina. The pardon freed Sellers to continue his academic career unimpeded by a felony record.


  • Cleveland Sellers, The River of No Return (New York: 1973)
  • Adam Parker, Warrior Evolves into Leader, The Post and Courier (Charleston S.C.), Sep. 21, 2008

Clyde Kennard, Mississippi
In 2006 Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi rejected the demands of a national campaign to pardon Clyde Kennard. Kennard tried to attend the segregated University of Southern Mississippi. Mississippi state officials denied his repeated applications and plotted to kill him. They were successful in framing Kennard on a charge of theft (stealing chicken feed), and in 1960 he was sentenced to 7 years. Kennard became ill in prison and was released. However, he died in 1963. In 2006, a Mississippi state court expunged his conviction after the only witness who testified against Kennard recanted his testimony. Governor Barbour refused to grant a posthumous pardon.


Betty Claiborne, Louisiana
In 1963 Betty Claiborne and her sister Pearl George were arrested for attempting to integrate the City Park Pool in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Claiborne was arrested and jailed for ten days. After forty-two years, Governor Blanco pardoned Claiborne in connection with the 2005 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration.

Mark Saltz, Louisiana Will Pardon Activist in Honor of MLK Day, U.S.A. Today, Jan. 17, 2005

Lena Baker, Georgia
In 1944, Lena Baker was tried and convicted of killing a white man who she claimed held her in slavery and threatened to kill her. The all-white male jury convicted her after a one day trial, rejecting her claim of self-defense, despite significant evidence that she was beaten, and she was sentenced to death. Baker sought clemency from the Board of Pardons and Paroles for clemency and was denied. She is the only woman ever electrocuted in Georgia.

In 2005, the Board granted a posthumous pardon to Lena Baker. The Board made clear that the pardon was not based on a finding of innocence but on the grounds that the Board erred in 1945 in denying her clemency.

Shaila Dewan, A Crescendoing Choir from the Graveyards of History, N.Y. Times, Aug.. 21, 2005

Montana Sedition Project
During World War I, twenty-seven states passed sedition laws, used to target the Wobblies and other socialist or anarchist groups. In Montana seventy-nine men and women were convicted of sedition. Almost all of the convictions were based on casual statements made by those arrested that were perceived as pro-German or anti-American. One man was pardoned after the war. Interest in these convictions was renewed as a result of efforts of the Sedition Project at the University of Montana School of Journalism. In 2006 the governor of Montana granted seventy-eight pardons for those accused of sedition from 1918-1919.

The Montana Sedition Project
Maurice Possley, The Sedition Project Aims for Posthumous Pardons, L.A. Times,  Dec. 30, 2005

Federal Pardons

The Constitution confers on the President the power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment. U.S. Const. art. II, 2, cl. 1. Virtually an unchecked power, the authority of Congress to impeach is the only constraint on the President’s decision to pardon. As executives customarily exercise this power when they exit office, the threat of impeachment is hardly a restriction.

The President may grant pardons, reprieves, commutations, amnesty and remit fines and forfeiture. President Johnson pardoned Confederate soldiers after the Civil War. Violators of the Selective Service laws during World War II and Vietnam have also been pardoned. Presidents have also used the pardon power to clear the records of the wrongfully convicted.


Henry Flipper
In 1999, President Clinton pardoned Henry Flipper, the first African-American graduate from West Point, fifty-nine years after his death. Flipper was accused of embezzling money and was court-marshaled by the Army in 1881 on a charge of thievery. Acquitted of the thievery charge, he was found guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer for lying to investigators.

In 1882 he received a dishonorable discharge. The Judge Advocate General concluded that Flipper had been persecuted because of his race; however, the conviction could not be set aside by military laws as they stood at that time. President Arthur could have reversed the conviction, but chose to affirm it instead. In 1976 Flipper’s military status was changed and in 1999, 117 years after his conviction, he was pardoned.


Preston King
During the Vietnam War, Preston King of Albany, Georgia, received an initial deferment from military service to complete a master’s degree at the London School of Economics. When King showed up at the draft board, the members realized he was African-American and refused to extend additional deferments. They began to refer to him as Preston rather than as Mr. King, as they had in their letters to him. Before he would take the physical, Preston King insisted that the Board address him formally, like the white draftees. The Board refused, and King was tried and convicted of draft evasion. He fled the country and returned to London where he became a prominent political scientist at the London School of Economics. King could not return to the United States until 2000, 39 years after his conviction, when President Clinton pardoned him.


Fort Lawton, Washington
During World War II, a riot broke out between American soldiers and Italian prisoners of war at Fort Lawton in Washington State. The morning after the riot an Italian was found lynched at the military post. Forty-three soldiers were court-martialed and twenty-eight, all African-American, were found guilty of rioting. Some of the sentences were reduced, but many soldiers served prison time.

Four of the convicted soldiers and two members of Congress filed a petition to reopen the case before the Army Board of Corrections of Military Records. The Board found that the soldiers’ convictions were flawed. Two lawyers represented all forty-three soldiers and they only had thirteen days to prepare for trial. The ruling awarded back pay, without interest, to the four soldiers or their families. The families of other soldiers must request a review of their specific cases.

On October 14, 2008, President Bush signed legislation authorizing the Army to pay compound interest on back pay and benefits due to the wrongly convicted Fort Lawton Soldiers, as part of the Duncan Hunter National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 2009.


  • Jack Hamann, On American Soil (Algonquin Books, 2005) – On American Soil tells the story of the Fort Lawton incident. His website contains media updates on legislation and other matters.
  • Veteran’s Plight Reaches Congress – U.S. Representative Jim McDermott’s press release when Fort Lawton Legislation was introduced, January 23, 2008
  • Another Step Toward Justice for Sam Snow and Fort Lawton – U.S. Representative Jim McDermott’s press release updating efforts for just compensation for the Fort Lawton cases, May 16, 2008.