By Christopher Zoukis
With less than four days left in office, On Jan. 17 president Obama commuted nearly all of the 28 years remaining in the 35-year court-martial sentence of Chelsea Manning, the former army intelligence analyst who copied over 700,000 archived military and diplomatic files — some classified — and sent them to WikiLeaks. The reduction in Manning’s sentence was part of 273 commutations issued that day.
Also receiving a commutation of a lengthy sentence was Puerto Rican independence activist Oscar López Rivera, who was sentenced in the 1980s to 55 years for conspiracy, firearms and explosives offenses, and other violations connected to Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN) bombings in the ’70s and ’80s, plus another 15 years for a failed escape attempt.
Two days later, the White House announced the departing president’s final batch of 330 clemency actions, including 64 pardons, an area in which Obama lagged many of his predecessors. Receiving a pardon was former Joint Chiefs of Staff vice-chair Marine General James Cartwright, who was due to be sentenced soon on a guilty plea of lying to FBI investigators investigating leaks on covert U.S. efforts to impede Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.
The final batch of pardons did not include relief for some prominent inmates who had requested clemency, such as Illinois ex-governor Rod Blagojevich, now in his fourth year of a 14-year sentence on corruption charges, or Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl, facing trial this spring after being exchanged for five Taliban members, much less for other prominent figures who did not seek pardons for possible future charges, such as secrets-leaker Edward Snowden.
By the end of his two terms, Obama had commuted the sentences of 1,715 federal inmates, including 568 who were serving or facing life sentences. He also issued a total of 212 pardons. The total 1,927 clemency actions by Obama topped all presidents since Harry Truman, and his commutations exceeded the combined total for his 12 most recent predecessors.
The majority of clemency recipients were serving time for nonviolent drug offenses, on which Obama has focused his attention, especially over the past two years. But the greatest attention —and most controversy — centered on Obama’s order to cut short the record-length sentence that a military court handed down to former Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, setting Manning free May 17, rather than in 2045.
Shortly after enlisting in the army, Manning was assigned to Iraq to monitor movements of insurgent forces. Given access to intelligence archives, the 22-year-old private downloaded combat reports from Afghanistan and Iraq, including sensitive reports on abuses of detainees, then sent them to WikiLeaks. Convicted in 2013 in a military court of six counts of Espionage Act violations, though not on charges of aiding the enemy, Manning is currently confined in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
In pleading guilty to some charges, the ex-soldier – who enlisted as Bradley Edward Manning – spoke about the great psychological pressure of disguising her identity as a transgendered woman. The commutation was issued to Chelsea Elizabeth Manning, the name she legally adopted in 2014.
In his final news conference, Obama defended his order, saying Manning had “served a tough prison sentence… disproportionate” to those previously handed down for similar offenses.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.