State News

Evers reinstates pardons following Dassey’s request

Gov. Tony Evers pardoned four ex-convicted felons — the first to be granted clemency petitions since before former Gov. Scott Walker — on Monday, coming less than a week after Netflix docu-series subject Brendan Dassey’s application splashed across the media.

Image By: Jacob Schellpfeffer

Gov. Tony Evers granted pardons to four ex-convicted felons Monday, issuing Wisconsin’s first executive pardons in more than nine years. This action came less than a week after a convicted felon featured on a popular Netflix docu-series petitioned for clemency. 

After an eight-year drought under former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, Evers reinstated the pardon process in June and created a body that reviews clemency applications and makes recommendations at the governor’s instruction. 

“I believe in forgiveness and the power of redemption,” Evers said in a press release. “People who have taken responsibility for their mistakes and who have worked to improve their lives and communities deserve a second chance.”

The governor’s decision also comes less than a week after lawyers representing convicted felon Brendan Dassey filed a clemency application, petitioning for a future pardon or commutation of his life sentence. Dassey appeared as a featured subject on the popular Netflix docu-series, “Making a Murderer.”

While recent pardons from the executive office may raise hope for those previously convicted, Evers remains ambiguous regarding commutations for those currently incarcerated. The last commuted sentence of a Wisconsin state prisoner occurred in 2001. 

Evers’ spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff told the Wisconsin State Journal earlier this summer that the governor would not be considering commutations “at this time.” 

The Wisconsin Constitution grants the governor authority to pardon individuals convicted of a felony. Pardons do not expunge a criminal’s record, but it serves as a formal act of forgiveness by the state that restores certain rights lost, including the right to hold public office, according to the press release. 

Governors from both political parties have traditionally used their pardon powers, a Wisconsin State Journal article argues. The Walker administration, however, elected not to. In June, Evers signed Executive Order #30, which re-established the state’s Pardon Advisory Board. The board assists Evers in deciding whom to pardon. Ex-felons who completed their prison sentence at least five years prior and have not committed any crimes since are eligible to submit a clemency application to the board for review. 

Conflict presents itself to Dassey, whose lawyers submitted an application on his behalf for a pardon or commutation last Wednesday, despite current statute, which prevents the Pardon Advisory Board from reviewing applications from felons who are still serving time.

A jury found Dassey and his uncle, Steven Avery, guilty in the 2005 rape and murder of photographer Teresa Halbach. Dassey was sentenced to life in prison, with the possibility of parole in 2048. 

“Historically, 100 percent of pardons and commutations go to offenders who fully admit guilt and fully accept responsibility. This also applies to offenders who seek parole release,” UW-Madison Law School Professor Kenneth Streit said. 

Dassey’s representatives, on the contrary, argue the opposite. 

The official pardon application asserted Dassey was “subjected to a uniquely and profoundly flawed legal process,” and by “his prison conduct and his gentle, patient insistence on his own innocence, Brendan has shown himself to be the rare person who is worthy of clemency.” 

The only direct linkage between Dassey and the murder was his confession. Dassey testified in his original trial and said his confession was “made up.” His lawyers believe police officers took advantage of his mental incapacity and manipulated Dassey during interrogation to coerce a positive confession. 

The fame associated with Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” docu-series further complicates the matter by introducing pop-culture and public opinion into the fold. Celebrity Kim Kardashian West expressed her support for Dassey’s clemency over social media last Friday. This may add pressure onto the Evers’ administration to consider the application despite Dassey’s recent denial from the U.S. Supreme Court last year. 

Streit believes, however, that the high-profiled nature of the case is negligent and that judges “will do everything possible to declare that decisions will not be influenced by the media and popular opinion.”

Evers told the Wisconsin State Journal that his administration will handle Dassey’s pardon request “just like we do any communication we receive.”

The four men Evers pardoned this last week — Eric Pizer, 38, Kevin Sorenson, 36, Rev. Mwangi Vasser, 40, and Steven Nichols, 62 — committed crimes ranging from substantial battery to selling illegal narcotics. But Evers and the Pardon Advisory Board publicly vindicated them of their past transgressions. 

“A pardon can profoundly impact a person’s life by offering them an official grant of forgiveness,” Evers said in a press release. “Mr. Nichols, Mr. Pizer, Mr. Sorenson, and Rev. Vasser have paid their debt to society, made amends, and contributed to their communities. I believe they deserve a second chance."

According to a Journal-Sentinel article, the Pardon Advisory Board received 210 clemency applications since their re-establishment in June. The board will review 10 more cases in its scheduled Oct. 14 meeting. 

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