If there hadn't been so much hope before, there would not be so much despair now. Like thousands of others seeking clemency from President Bill Clinton in the waning days of his administration, Vanessa Wade knew he was her only chance for mercy. And so she hoped.
Her petition for clemency laid bare the sordid facts of her life: her mother's suicide when Vanessa was 19 and the subsequent responsibility for her younger siblings, her rescue from poverty by her boyfriend, her involvement in his Miami cocaine operation.
In May 1990, when she was 19, Wade agreed to transport 22 grams of cocaine for her boyfriend. A maid at the hotel where Wade and a 17-year-old accomplice were staying found the drugs, and hotel officials called the police. Tried as a "lieutenant" because of her supervisorial role over the youth, she was convicted of conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute cocaine.
By last year, Wade, a first-time nonviolent offender, had served 10 years of her 23-year sentence. In her plea to the president, she did what all clemency seekers are advised to do: accept responsibility and repent. Clinton already had commuted the sentences of several low-level drug offenders and he had openly declared the unfairness of laws that meted out kingpin sentences to minor players.
"I knew some of those women he had freed and I didn't see much difference between their cases and mine," she said. While outrage has centered on whether Clinton was influenced by family members and Democratic Party donors to pardon the undeserving, for many prisoner advocates Clinton's greatest sin did not involve those who were pardoned, but those who were not.
"The day Clinton left office without pardoning so many people who really deserved it was one of the most miserable experiences of my life," said Nora Callahan, head of the November Coalition, a drug-sentencing reform group in Colville, Wash.
Wade, who is incarcerated in a Fort Worth federal prison, dared to hope after a fellow inmate told her Iowa attorney, John Ackerman, about Wade's case. Working without a fee, Ackerman asked Wade for permission to seek clemency on her behalf. "Vanessa committed a crime and she deserved to be punished, but the penalties are way beyond what they should be," he said.
No one involved with her case would help.
"I contacted the judge in the case who said he didn't want to be involved. I contacted the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, who said no one should ever be pardoned," he said.
Ackerman filed the application last October with the Justice Department's pardon attorney's office, which reviews all clemency requests.
Pardon attorney Roger Adams, however, told him the petition was arriving so late that unless the White House showed interest, Wade's petition would not be a priority. Some people with petitions filed later than Wade's, however, did receive clemency while others who had filed earlier did not.
In the last months of the Clinton administration, the White House was awash with nearly 3,000 clemency requests. Former aides recently testified in congressional hearings that Clinton, realizing he had granted fewer pardons than previous presidents, wanted to increase the number. "Roger talked to me personally and said if we get any call for these papers from the president we'll have them ready," Ackerman said. "So I wrote to the president. You get this thing back that says your letter was received."
Wade wrote to Clinton too, every day, from Dec. 1 to Jan. 15.
In theory, applications for clemency go to the pardon attorney's office, where they are rigorously reviewed by a staff attorney. Support from prosecutors or the judge involved in the case is critical for most standard applications. Since Clinton left office, however, prosecutors around the country have said they were never contacted regarding clemency for people he freed.
If viewed favorably by the pardon attorney, applications moved up to former Deputy Atty. Gen. Eric Holder's office, and then to the White House. That's the theory.
Margaret Love, the nation's pardon attorney from 1990 to 1997, in both the Bush and Clinton administrations, said the reality is far different. The current focus of political inquiry--whether strings were pulled in some special clemency cases--misses the point, she says. Pulling strings has been almost the only way for anyone to obtain clemency. While she was pardon attorney, Love said, she was discouraged from urging commutation for anyone who did not have high-powered support.
"I was operating under what was in effect a 'just say no' directive from the deputy attorney general's office," Love said. "At one point I was told explicitly that favorable recommendations in commutation cases would not be favorably received unless there had been a prior expression of interest from the White House or from a member of Congress."