Governor Bill Haslam granted pardons and a sentence commutation to four Tennesseans on Thursday, offering clemency for only the second time since he took office in 2011.
Three of the recipients — Ralph Randall Reagan, Robert James Sheard, Jr., and Steven Lee Kennedy — are already out of prison. The fourth was Michelle Lea Martin, a woman currently serving a 25-year term for the murder of her abusive father. She will have her sentence commuted and be released early into supervised parole.
Haslam says these four were obvious choices.
“We thought they showed clear evidence of rehabilitation,” he said. “They’ve become outstanding citizens, and usually in most cases there was something else they wanted to do with their life that they were prohibited from (by) the conviction on their record.”
The only other person to receive clemency from Haslam has been Lawrence McKinney, a man who spent three decades behind bars due to a wrongful conviction. Haslam exonerated McKinney last December — years after he was released from prison and following an extensive campaign to have his record cleared.
It isn’t uncommon for elected officials to wait until their last term to exercise their power of clemency. And even for those who have been released from prison, a pardon can assist recipients by acting as an official statement of forgiveness. It may assist those who have had trouble in obtaining employment, housing, or certain certifications due to their conviction. It also opens up the possibility of expungement.
But some are questioning whether Haslam might also grant clemency to other, more high-profile cases, particularly people still serving time in prison.
They point to Cyntoia Brown, who is serving a life sentence, after being convicted of killing a man who picked her up for sex when she was 16 years old. Advocates say she was a victim of sex trafficking and feared for her life.
Earlier this summer, the state parole board could not reach a consensus on whether to recommend her case for clemency. Haslam does not need their approval. Shortly after his announcement, Haslam told reporters that it’s a more difficult decision when dealing with a life sentence, but he did not write off the possibility that she could still be a recipient.
He added that today’s announcement is not “an exhaustive list,” and more are likely to be granted clemency before he leaves office.
Death row inmate Billy Ray Irick, who the Knoxville News Sentinel reports has a long history of mental illness, has also asked the governor to commute his sentence to life in prison. Irick was convicted of raping and killing a 7-year-old girl during what advocates say was a psychotic episode that he cannot remember.
He is scheduled to be put to death Aug. 9 — the first execution in Tennessee in almost a decade. As reported by the Nashville Scene, many have raised concerns that his mental illness should preclude him from capital punishment.
In response to a question about his upcoming execution, Haslam said, “Our role is not to be the 13th juror. It is to say, ‘Did the process process work right?’ We are in the middle of that evaluation now.”
Irick is one of 32 men currently on death row who are challenging the constitutionality of the state’s lethal injection protocol.