How Often Do Fugitives Get Pardoned?

In his written defense in the New York Times of his pardons of fugitives Marc Rich and Pincus Green, former President Bill Clinton makes reference to the fact that “Ordinarily, I would have denied pardons in this case simply because these men did not return to the United States to face the charges against them.” How extraordinary is it for presidents to pardon fugitives?

Very. Individual pardons of fugitives are almost unheard of. The broad exception is that following a war, presidents–including Jefferson, Lincoln, Truman, and Carter–have issued amnesties for deserters or draft violators, some of whom may have fled the country, for purposes of national unity. (For an explanation of the difference between pardons, commutations, and amnesties, see this Explainer.) Legal scholars can only cite one other case in recent U.S. history of an individual who fled prosecution being given a presidential pardon: Preston King, 64, also pardoned by Clinton. In 1958 King was refused deferment from military service to pursue a graduate degree when his draft board in Albany, Ga., found out he was black. The board also stopped referring to him as “Mr. King” and instead called him “Preston.” He said he would report for service if the board went back to calling him “Mr. King.” The board refused, and King was convicted of draft evasion. He left the country and settled in England, where he became a college professor. An organized effort to get a pardon for King, which had the support of the NAACP and Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., was foundering because the pardon office of the Department of Justice objected to King’s status as a fugitive. The case was helped when the original judge, now 96, wrote Clinton supporting the pardon. When King’s brother died and he wanted to return to this country for the funeral, Clinton issued the pardon in February of last year. Congress held no hearings on the matter.

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Explainer thanks Margaret Love, former United States pardon attorney, Christopher Schroeder of Duke University, and Ken Gormley of Duquesne University School of Law.