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Good Question: What Is Clemency?

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(credit: The Guardian via Getty Images)

(credit: The Guardian via Getty Images)

(credit: CBS) Heather Brown
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The editorial board of America’s largest newspaper, the New York Times, says a man the government calls a traitor should be given a deal.

Last year, Edward Snowden stole and then leaked top secret documents about how the National Security Agency gathers its information. He’s been living in Russia, because he could end up in prison for life if he comes home.

On Thursday, the editorial board of the New York Times wrote that Snowden should get a reduced punishment or “some form of clemency that would allow him to return home.”

So what is clemency? Good Question.

“It’s really another word for the pardoning power the President has,” said David Schultz, a law professor at Hamline University. He says the U.S. tradition of clemency goes back hundreds of years to the king of England and is a right of the President protected by Article 2 of the Constitution.

“It essentially means I forgive you for what you did,” Schultz said.

According to P.S. Ruckman, Jr., a political scientist and pardon expert, more than 16,000 people have been pardoned or had their sentences commuted or shortened by a U.S. president. That decision cannot be question or overturned.

They’ve included Patty Hearst, George Steinbrenner and Bill Clinton’s half-brother. Among the most famous of pardons was in 1974 when then-President Gerald Ford pardoned former President Richard Nixon.

Nixon had never been charged with a crime.

“It can also be used to pardon individuals before they’ve been charged with a crime,” Schultz said.

Snowden faces two charges under the Espionage Act. Public opinion is divided on whether he’s a hero or a traitor.

“He definitely committed treason by the strict definition of the words,” said Jon Poulson of Minneapolis. “But, in a way, he could definitely be considered a whistleblower.”

Schultz says the U.S. government has other options on how to deal with Snowden. Congress could grant immunity, as it did in the case of Oliver North, or the Justice Department could cut a plea bargain to reduce the charges.

Schultz believes none of these options are likely at this point.

“There’s a lot of who consider him a traitor, and there’s a lot of people who consider him a hero,” Schultz said. “I don’t think as long as public opinion is divided on this issue, I don’t think the President of the United States will issue the pardon.”

But, Ruckman argues, it’s not entirely out of the question, pointing to the cases of Marian Zacharsky, a Polish spy whose sentenced was shortened by President Reagan and John Duetch, a former CIA director pardoned by President Clinton for mishandling government secrets.

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