After Issuing 61 Pardons, Missouri Governor Nixon Is Still Playing It Safe

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Missouri Governor Jay Nixon. - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Photo by Danny Wicentowski
  • Missouri Governor Jay Nixon.

The days are dwindling in Jay Nixon's second — and final — term as Missouri governor, which will come to an end on January 9. But as the race to replace him heats up, Nixon is likely wondering how he'll be remembered. 

Clearly, Nixon is considering his legacy to be that of a law-and-order politician, having served as the state's attorney general for more than a decade before ascending to the governor's mansion in 2009. Until recently, Nixon had done little to change that perception. In his first six years as governor, he granted just one commutation, reducing a convicted murderer's death sentence to life without parole. 

But in late December 2014, Nixon finally appeared ready to embrace his office's clemency powers. He started with nine pardons. He's since granted 52 more. 

On Friday, Nixon's office announced that he'd granted the largest single block pardons in his governorship, wiping away the criminal convictions of fourteen people. All had completed their sentences, rejoined society and stayed out of trouble. Only two had ever served prison terms: Ralph Smith did two years after being convicted of grand larceny in Greene County in 1954. John Wynne was convicted in 1963 of second degree burglary in Grundy County and served a nine-month sentence before being paroled. 

Friday's pardons follow the pattern established in Nixon's previous edicts: The cases involve relatively minor crimes such as theft and drug possession. None of the people affected are currently incarcerated. Some of the crimes date back a half-century or more. 

There has been one notable exception. Jeff Mizanskey, a Sedalia pot dealer sentenced to life without parole in 1994 under Missouri's harsh three-strike drug law, attracted enormous public support after Riverfront Times reported on his case in 2013. Nixon ultimately bent to the pressure and commuted Mizanskey's sentence in August 2015. That allowed Mizanskey to appear before a parole board, and in September 2015, he was granted parole. 

But since Mizanskey, Nixon has basically put his commutation power back in the box. He has commuted only one other case, that of Kimber Edwards, who was awaiting execution for the 2000 murder of his ex-wife. Edwards had been accused of paying a hitman to commit the murder, but in 2015 the hitman reversed his story and claimed that Edwards had been framed. Nixon reduced Edwards' sentence to life in prison without parole — a good move, but hardly a risky one. Edwards will stay locked up for life.

Is this the limit of Nixon's mercy? It's difficult to say. He has about three months left to surprise us, and there's no shortage of worthwhile cases.

For instance: The state legislature has already passed a repeal of the three-strike drug law that put Mizanskey away for life — but the reform, which kicks in January 1, is not retroactive. More than 140 people are serving no-parole sentences under a law that Missouri's own lawmakers recognized as unjust. By commuting those sentences, Nixon could allow each offender to make his case before a parole board. This would be no get-out-of-jail card — but it would allow each offender the chance to make his case, just like Mizanskey did.

And then there's Tim Prosser, the only prisoner in the state serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole for drug trafficking. With a commutation from Nixon, a parole board could decide whether the now-sober ex-meth cook deserves freedom or not. Otherwise, Prosser will die in prison — even though, as we detailed in our recent cover story, he was a far cry from a drug kingpin or even really a dealer. Even the prosecutor in his case is calling for Prosser to get a second chance. 

In recent years, even the biggest proponents of lock'em up policies have sought to reverse their harshest positions. Nixon, a Democrat, could look at his party's presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, who as First Lady spoke in support of a 1994 crime bill and described dangerous gangs of black youths as "super-predators." Two decades later, she's campaigning on a platform that acknowledges the criminal justice system is "out of balance" and in need of sentencing reform.

Or take President Obama, who wields the power to grant clemency over federal prisoners. He's put the process into overdrive. In August, he commuted the sentences of 325 federal inmates, bringing the total number 673.

And that's not even the really interesting part: According to a USA Today analysis, the president has recently adopted an unprecedented policy to use his clemency powers to inject, yes, balance into the criminal justice system. Obama is basically re-sentencing some offenders, "recalculating the sentences using the federal guidelines in effect today to meet current guidelines." The analysis found that 39 percent of Obama's federal commutations in August came with a year or two more left on the sentence. Those offenders must still serve out their punishment, but it's a far better fate than what they were previously facing. 

There's nothing stopping Nixon from doing something similar in Missouri. 

Granted, it's not like Nixon has completely avoided criminal justice reform. He issued an executive order in April to "ban the box," meaning that applicants to state jobs are no longer required to disclose their criminal history, unless that history is connected to the position. In July, he signed a bill making it easier for some ex-offenders to expunge their criminal records.

As others have suggested, it's possible that Nixon is acting out of political cynicism. Opponents looking for Nixon's Willie Horton will find only elderly shoplifters and petty pot dealers — no one who poses any risk of re-offending. Pardoning only "safe" cases now will protect Nixon in future campaigns and preserve his law-and-order bonafides. 

But by taking that tactic, the governor leaves himself open to another line of attack: That when presented with the opportunity to confront injustice, he demurred on the side of self-preservation. That he chose cowardice over courage.

Is that really the legacy Nixon wants to leave Missouri? 

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com 


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