After his much deserved firing by Kentucky voters, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin marked his departure by handing out over 600 pardons. In general, this ability of governors—and presidents—is a good thing, since it allows redress for convictions based on racism; prosecutors determined to keep up a 99% conviction rate even if it means trampling on evidence; disproportionate sentences; and other forms of injustice that are difficult or impossible to address through the courts. However, Donald Trump has already demonstrated that, to him, pardon power means your friends never have to worry about criming. And for Matt Bevin, it means that even those who rape 9-year-olds and those who decapitate women and shove their bodies into barrels can walk free.
Some of those Bevin pardoned had served only a tiny fraction of their sentences—for example, just two years out of a 19-year sentence for robbing and murdering a man while his children looked on. And that case in particular is drawing attention because, in what’s surely a total coincidence, the brother of that pardoned man held a campaign fundraiser in July 2018 that raised $21,500 for Bevin, The Louisville Courier Journal reported. If that seems like a very low price for a ticket to freedom, Bevin also got a letter from another big donor asking him to issue this pardon.
This case and others have led the FBI to begin asking questions about Bevin and how he made his selections for pardons. It’s unclear at this point what the FBI is investigating. It’s also unclear what can be done if it’s discovered that Bevin pardoned one or more people because of their connections to his campaign, or because they were friends or family of Republican megadonors. While some in Kentucky have indicated that they’ve been contacted by the FBI, the agency itself is making no statement about any ongoing investigation.
It’s unclear that the FBI, the current administration, or any court has the right to review Bevin’s pardons in the sense of reversing any of his decisions. It’s also not clear that, even in a case that seems as egregious as this, allowing the reversal of pardons is a place that anyone wants to go. However, if Bevin granted pardons because he received something of personal value—either to himself or to his campaign—then there’s a simple name for that: bribery.
Granting pardons, like, say, granting a White House meeting is for a president, was something that fell under Bevin’s executive authority. And should the FBI determine that the former Republican governor used his authority for personal gain, it could very well mean that those who Bevin pardoned will remain free … but not necessarily Bevin.