High-profile inmates serving life sentence for marijuana crimes were not given clemency by President Barack Obama on Thursday, leaving their families devastated after long public campaigns urging their freedom.
John Knock, whose sister Beth Curtis has lobbied for the release of nonviolent marijuana convicts, learned Wednesday that his application had been denied. Knock was arrested in 1996 and convicted in 2000 of participating in an international pot-smuggling operation.
“It’s an incredibly painful disappointment that my brother – a wonderful person who is totally nonviolent – is going to die in prison,” Curtis says, holding back tears.
“My brother along with about 2,500 others were denied yesterday,” she says. “The big story is the number of denials that have gone out. My brother was among them along with other nonviolent marijuana offenders and many, many nonviolent drug offenders.”
Obama has for years been criticized for being reluctant to grant clemency. But following a surge in applications, he has given hundreds of commutations as he prepares to hand over power Friday to President-elect Donald Trump.
Obama gave 330 sentence commutations Thursday, following 209 commutations and 64 pardons Tuesday. His final clemency figures will dwarf recent predecessors, with beneficiaries largely dealers of crack cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs.
But Obama’s late-developing generosity doesn’t soften the blow for those not on the lists.
Michael Pelletier, paralyzed by a childhood farming accident, was not given good news Thursday, though his application has not officially been denied. Pelletier was convicted in 2007 of a conspiracy that involved swimming marijuana from Canada into Maine.
A petition urging commutation of Pelletier’s life sentence has more than 100,000 signatures, but hope for his release dimmed when he wasn’t on the latest list, which The Associated Press described as Obama’s “last major act as president.”
“His name wasn’t on the list that just came out, so that’s the end of that,” says Pelletier’s sister Marlene Champagne, who was audibly upset during a short phone conversation.
“I just saw it on the computer, so it’s kind of – ” she said, trailing off. “I was hopeful that Obama would. I doubt Trump [would].”
CAN-DO Foundation founder Amy Ralston Povah, a clemency recipient herself who helped prepare Pelletier’s application, says she’s holding out hope that Obama will issue a final list of commutations on Friday.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether there would be additional grants of clemency during Obama’s leaves office at noon Friday. A Justice Department spokesman says “this was it.”
“If a paraplegic serving life for pot is not worthy, then who is?” Povah says.
“It’s frustrating, because you’re powerless,” she says, describing the application-review process as opaque. She says Pelletier was not notified that the Office of the Pardon Attorney was reviewing his prison record, as other inmates have been.
Povah says Pelletier’s record shows he has taught art and stayed out of trouble.
“We assume they have his application and are processing it,” she says. “But who knows, maybe not.”
Curtis says she’s not sure why convicts serving marijuana life sentences have not been shoo-ins for commutations. Although many men profiled on her website LifeforPot.com have received commutations from Obama, others previously were denied, including Andy Cox, convicted in 2009 of growing hundreds of marijuana plants – before doing so became a state-licensed, federally tolerated business in a majority of states.
Curtis believes prosecutors whose opinions are given substantial weight during consideration of clemency applications probably are part of the problem. Taking too lenient a position on marijuana would put authorities out of work, she says.
Although some prominent pot convicts have not received clemency, others have.
Five Texans with life sentences for marijuana charges received commutations Tuesday. Four of those cases also involved money-laundering convictions. Curtis did not profile these men on her website, which she has used to promote cases meticulously reviewed to ensure inmates only were involved with pot.
Curtis says she’s hopeful Trump will be generous with his presidential pardon power and optimistically mentions the criminal justice reform efforts of conservative groups.
“I can’t be partisan,” she says. “My brother has been in prison as a first-time nonviolent marijuana offender through the Clinton administration, the Bush administration and now eight years of the Obama administration. Why would I pick sides and think there’s a savior somewhere?”
Watch: A slideshow of Knock: