A Texas activist wants big changes in the way the criminal justice system works, but he’s launching his campaign with a goal that he thinks should be easy for people to agree on — the presidential pardon of celebrated American writer O. Henry, 102 years after his death.
Scott Henson, a former investigative journalist and blogger on the criminal justice system, launched a petition drive Thursday, with the aim of delivering 10,000 signatures to President Barak Obama by Sept. 11, O. Henry’s birthday.
"This petition aims both to honor and exonerate a great American writer and to call attention to a withering and atrophied clemency process, one which no longer functions as robustly either as justice demands or America's constitutional framers intended," said Henson.
O. Henry, whose real name is William S. Porter, was convicted in 1898 of embezzling $700 from an Austin bank where he worked as a teller.
Some historians say the trial was badly flawed and there were serious problems with the bank’s lax record keeping at the time — so Porter’s actual guilt is in question.
Porter made things worse for himself when he skipped bail and fled to Honduras. But on news that his wife was critically ill, he returned to Austin to care for her, and appear at his trial, according to a Texas history web site, Lonestar Junction.
Porter’s wife died, and he served five years in an Ohio prison, after which he stopped using his real name altogether in an effort to hide his identity. He moved to New York, where he produced some of his most acclaimed works.
But he died of alcoholism at the age of 47, nearly penniless.
Even if O. Henry was legitimately convicted of the crime, Henson says, his case is an excellent opportunity for a presidential pardon, an executive power held by governors and U.S. presidents that is exercised far less than it was half a century ago.
O. Henry published hundreds of stories, before, during and after his prison sentence, gaining fame for his detailed depictions of Texas and New York.
The most prestigious award for American short stories is the PEN/O. Henry. There are museums that celebrate his legacy — and towns, schools and other buildings named after him, including the University of Texas-owned building that housed the court where Porter was convicted.
This year, the 150th birthday of O. Henry’s birth, the U.S. Postal Service is rolling out a postage stamp featuring O. Henry’s face.
When President Obama pardoned the Thanksgiving turkey in 2011, who did he quote? O. Henry.
The irony of that presidential ritual prompted Henson to write “Eat the turkey, Pardon O. Henry,” in his blog on Texas criminal justice system, "Grits for Breakfast." He then bought the domain names PardonOHenry dot-com, dot-org, and dot-net.
The petition invokes the case of O. Henry as a way of highlighting the power of presidents to restore the political rights of ex-felons, expunge criminal records, commute sentences, clear the name of someone falsely or unfairly convicted, even those of the deceased.
"Pardoning William S. Porter would signal that you understand and value the true purpose of executive clemency powers in the justice system — not just as a symbol but also a remedy for both actual innocence and unfortunate guilt,' (referring to an expression from the Federalist Papers) one that provides a healing salve even for century-old wounds," says a letter accompanying the petition to Obama.
Obama has so far been among the stingiest American presidents in exercising the powers of clemency, as recently reported by msnbc.com, but Henson says that this is merely the continuation of a trend among modern presidents.
And posthumous pardons are extremely rare.
A recent study by Stephen Greenspan, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado, tallied posthumous pardons for 106 individuals throughout U.S. history, including 12 who were executed.
At least one previous effort to win a posthumous pardon for O. Henry in 1985 ended without success.
Another posthumous pardon request — arguably one with more symbolic heft — was rejected by the Obama administration in 2009.
In that effort, spearheaded by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the subject was black heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson, who was imprisoned nearly a century ago for violation of the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for "immoral purposes." The case was seen as punishment for Johnson's unapologetic relationships with white women, and a warning to other black men.
That petition was rejected at the time by Obama’s justice officials who said that the administration did not grant posthumous pardons.
But Henson sees growing interest in the presidential pardon power — or the lack thereof. It gives Henson a "test drive" opportunity for a new lobbying organization that he is setting up to press for criminal justice reform, including greater use of clemency.
And, he’s billing a pardon of O. Henry as an easy move in the right direction.
"It’s kind of a low-risk thing for Obama, just like it’s a low-risk thing for me," said Henson. "It’s a fun campaign to be the first thing out of the gate and, meanwhile, the pardon issue is a real issue."
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