Appropriate Clemency

DUE process and justice in America is not a one-time thing. The US system's ability to change and to adjust criminal-justice decisions was displayed twice last week. In Virginia, Gov. Douglas Wilder stayed the execution of Joseph Giarratano Jr., who has distinguished himself as a legal scholar while on death row. And in Maryland, Gov. William Schaefer offered clemency to six women convicted of murdering their husbands. The women released in the Maryland case had suffered histories of serious abuse by their husbands - abuse not allowed as evidence in court.

Governor Wilder's decision was a popular one - though it is the first pardon in three opportunities by the nation's first black governor, who ran on an anti-capital punishment platform. Mr. Giarratano's case appears to be a classic example of personal rehabilitation. Convicted in 1980 of murdering two women while on drugs, Giarrantano got off drugs in prison, and proved so exceptional in his study of law that he had a case for another prisoner go to the Supreme Court. Next month he is to be published in the Yale Law Review. New evidence in the Giarratano case raises questions about his guilt. He will be eligible for parole in 2004.

Clemency in the Maryland cases is more controversial. Governor Schaefer, following a precedent set by Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste last December when he granted clemency to women in 26 of 100 cases reviewed, actually visited the Maryland women personally before making a judgment. He determined several of the women (one had previously been shot by her husband) would have been killed had they not acted in self-defense.

New York, Washington, Texas, and Arizona are also considering the review of convicted women who acted after being abused by their husbands. The effect of such review will properly raise again the possibility of allowing ``battered women'' testimony in criminal proceedings. In a nation in which wife-beating was legal in several states up until the 1970s, it is high time household violence and cruelty be considered in a trial, as a simple matter of justice.

Rigorous standards for such testimony must be developed. ``Battered-woman syndrome'' should not join ``temporary insanity'' or the infamous ``Twinkie defense'' as a means to excuse such a heinous crime as murdering a husband. Individuals are responsible for their actions. The development of such laws, however, will make governors' pardons less necessary since judges and juries will take more evidence into account from the start.

Nor should such pardons become a form of political grandstanding - a way of currying favor with women voters by playing off what is obviously an emotional issue. Cases should be taken on their own merits, independent of how the action ``plays'' in the media.

Both the Virginia and the Maryland cases confirm that mercy as well as justice has a place in the legal system.

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