Prosecutors seek more openness on pardons

___When you talk to prosecutors around the state, many of them will tell you they're unhappy that Gov. Huckabee pardons criminals without letting law-enforcement officials or victims' families know why he's doing it, as he's required by law.
___ "He doesn't take giving clemency very seriously," complains Saline County Prosecuting Attorney Robert Herzfeld, who will push for new legislation next year to make the clemency process less secretive.
___ Herzfeld and several other prosecutors we've talked to think the system needs to be more open. They say prosecutors, victims' families and the public should know how and why the governor issues clemencies.
___ "People believe the worst when the process is not open," Herzfeld says. "They have no faith in the clemency system."
___"Drafting legislation to reform clemency in Arkansas would go a long way toward opening the process with better regulation," Herzfeld says.
___Another prosecutor told us that a system of checks and balances is needed to make sure the governor does not abuse his powers. Without reforms, this prosecutor fears Huckabee will offer mass amnesty to hundreds of criminals before he leaves office and no one could stop him. Herzfeld thinks the governor's office should not only notify victims' families about future clemencies, but he should post all clemency petitions and letters of support on the Internet for everyone to see and to contest any underserved pardons before it's too late. "Take away the backroom deals," Herzfeld pleads.
___The governor told us he acts on only 10 percent of the clemency petitions he receives, but that means hundreds of pardons every year, prosecutors say.
___Herzfeld is not exaggerating when he says Huckabee's pardons policies are "fatally flawed." When the governor first came into office, he announced that convicted rapist Wayne DuMond had been framed and pushed for his early release.
___Confronted with the evidence against DuMond, Huckabee de-nied him clemency, although a backroom deal with the Post Prison Transfer Board allowed DuMond to move to Missouri, where he soon killed at least one woman and probably two.
___Herzfeld successfully sued to keep a murderer named Don Jeffers behind bars (at least for a while longer) after Huckabee granted him clemency without explanation as required by law: "On granting an application (for executive clemency), the Governor shall include in his written order the reasons thereforeŠ."
___Attorney General Mike Beebe, in nullifying the pardon, agreed that the governor had erred when he didn't give reasons why he had pardoned Jeffers and didn't even contact the prosecutor or the victim's family about how he felt about the pardon.
___"It was a tremendous victory," says the 30-year-old prosecutor. "This was not only the first time a prosecutor had filed a lawsuit against a governor but had actually won." Jeffers had strangled a Bryant man during a home burglary in 1980 and is serving a life sentence without parole for murder and 25 years for armed robbery after he plea bargained to avoid the death penalty.
___Herzfeld thinks that a life sentence without parole should mean just that: There's no way out until the caretaker carries you to the cemetery.
___Jeffers can reapply for clemency, but Herzfeld hopes more publicity and pressure from the victim's family might persuade Huckabee not to grant Jeffers clemency again. Under Herzfeld's legislative reforms, inmates who have been denied clemency couldn't reapply for four years. Now they can reapply almost immediately.
___Herzfeld expects Jeffers will ask for clemency again in July or August. "It's a nightmare," the prosecutor says. "It's something that has to be fixed. The people of Arkansas are demanding that the system be changed."
___"Don Jeffers is a cold-blooded murderer who should never see the outside of a prison," Herzfeld insists.
___He is fighting clemency for an-other Saline County killer named Denver Dual Witham, who is also serving a life sentence without parole.
___In 1974, Witham and a cousin beat their victim to death out in the woods with a lead pipe – and beat him repeatedly so that the victim's face was smashed almost beyond recognition. "His entire face was gone," the prosecutor says.
___He accuses Witham of lying on his clemency petition to make it seem that he had killed his victim in "a barroom brawl" – as if that had made the crime less awful.
___"He's a liar," Herzfeld says of Witham, who could face perjury charges because of his whitewashed clemency application.
___Herzfeld says Witham, who plays in the prison band, hid five previous felonies from his clemency application and had threatened the previous sheriff.
___"This is the person the governor wants to let out of prison," the prosecutor says. "No word yet on whether the governor will change his mind or go ahead and grant clemency to this convicted murderer who lied on his clemency application and made threats towards former public officials," Herzfeld told us.
___"The governor has to wait 30 days from the date he announced his intent to grant clemency on May 21. My guess is that the governor will release his decision on Witham late this Friday afternoon before the long holiday weekend."

Next: Huckabee's attitude.

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