In 1989, Gov. Roy Romer pardoned four people and commuted the sentences of four others.
That’s about all we know.
We know even less about clemency orders Romer issued in 1992, 1996, 1997 and 1998.
No official names; no official reasons; not even how many there were.
Just before Christmas 2010, Gov. Bill Ritter issued pardons to 20 people.
There are no official records for any of them, either.
The same for January 2011, when Ritter pardoned 19 more – including a wrongly convicted mentally disabled man who the state executed for murder in 1939 – and commuted the sentences of 10 others.
In a review of gubernatorial pardons and commutations issued in Colorado since 1979, The Denver Post found a messy and inconsistent system of record-keeping and procedure that frequently means there is no reliable way of identifying who was given clemency, for what conduct, or even why the governor thought it a good idea.
Murderers, thieves, physical abusers, drug dealers, and addicts typically make up the bulk of those granted clemency each year, according to the records that could be located or newspaper accounts of the time.
“It was very much our expectation at the time that all executive orders issued by a governor would be perpetual public records,” said attorney Tim Daly, Romer’s former chief legal counsel.
For the years the records don’t exist, The Denver Post could not determine what crimes were forgiven or the convictions for which prison sentences were shortened.
Governors are constitutionally required to annually let the Legislature know whose prison sentences have been commuted and who has received an executive pardon – as well as the reason for the clemency – but there are no rules covering how that should be done, or when or how to keep track of it all, The Post found.
“I think we had 150-plus requests and we acted on 42,” Ritter said. “I read every single file and I think people who worked for me, we were pretty painstaking in the review of those files. As a former prosecutor, it was important to take the application seriously and personally involve myself in the review. I can only say my great preference is there is a record of those, a public and transparent record.”
Governors typically send a clemency report to the two houses of the state legislature soon after convening each January, detailing those actions from the previous year. The Post found several reports that contained the actual clemency order issued for each person – executive orders are lettered A through D, with C designated for clemency – and details of the crimes for which they were convicted.
But year to year, the Legislature didn’t treat the governors’ reports consistently. In 2000, for instance, the House or Senate read the entirety of Gov. Bill Owens’ communication into the official record. In 1998 and 1999, there was only the mention of a clemency letter from Romer that was purportedly placed on file with the secretary of each chamber.
From there, it’s anyone’s guess what became of the reports.
The secretaries of each chamber told The Post they retained none of the paperwork, and the documents each year would have been sent along to the state archivist, whose job it is to keep the records for posterity.
A check by The Post found the state archives have all executive orders A, B, and D issued by a governor – but not the clemency orders.
“We don’t presume to know what documents departments find important and we don’t have enforcement authority to demand which documents are to be provided to archives,” said Doug Platt, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Personnel and Administration, where the state archivist is located. “We provide a retention schedule and rely on them to forward to us those documents.”
Platt referred to the agency’s records disposition schedule to see who was to maintain executive orders and there it was, nestled between state maps and political party organizations: Colorado’s secretary of state.
Secretary Jena Griswold’s office is to retain all executive orders for three years, then transfer them to the state archives for permanent storage, according to the schedule.
“Wouldn’t that be a question for the Governor’s office?” asked Steve Hurlbert, Griswold’s senior advisor for strategic communications, when The Post asked if his agency held the orders. “Sorry, maybe I’m missing something.”
Later, Hurlbert said: “I checked around and we have extradition papers dating back over the last five years but nothing related to executive clemency orders.”
Every agency offered the same suggestion: Check with the governor’s office.
While Gov. Jared Polis’ website shows all his executive orders, including clemency, since he entered the office in January 2019, the archived orders from previous governors do not include any for clemency.
The governor’s office does not maintain any records from previous chief executives, a spokesperson said.
Former Gov. Bill Owens pardoned 13 people during his eight years in office, according to a handful of published accounts, but only two of the actual orders can be found — the ones he mistakenly filed as an executive order D, which deal with issues of public health. Of the others missing, only four are mentioned in the Legislative journals.
“I had a clear and justifiable reason for every pardon or commutation I ordered, and publicly gave the reason for each such decision,” Owens told The Post in an email. “I find it very concerning that these public records have apparently been removed after I left office.”
A check with the Colorado Department of Corrections found it also does not maintain any executive orders granting clemency, nor any records of release that would indicate an inmate got out early because of one, a spokeswoman said.
Within DOC is the Executive Clemency Advisory Board, a panel of seven (the number changes from time to time) whose job is to cull through applications from inmates and others with convictions and recommend leniency petitions to the governor. It had gone defunct for a few years under then-Gov. John Hickenlooper, who then recast and restarted it in 2014, finally issuing his first clemency decision in May 2017 after six years in office.
Hickenlooper then made good use of his clemency powers, commuting or pardoning 174 people by the end of his term in 2019.
Not one of those clemency orders can be located in the most likely places, although the names of the beneficiaries exist in the legislative journals when the governor reported them to both houses of the General Assembly.
But not why they got pardoned or granted leniency.
Hickenlooper’s clemencies begin with Rene Lima Marin’s pardon in May 2017 for a number of crimes he committed and was mistakenly paroled early. When the error was discovered years later and he was re-arrested, he had already married, fathered a child, and was a productive member of society.
Hickenlooper’s tenure ended with a marathon list of 134 names – 116 of them pardons – on Jan. 4, 2019, that culminated with Christine Zimdahl, who was convicted in 2008 in El Paso County for drug possession.
The list in the journals, however, doesn’t distinguish what form of clemency each person received so it’s unclear whether their crimes were forgiven or if their sentences commuted.
The Post did locate nearly all of Hickenlooper’s clemency orders with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation – a half-dozen were missing – which the law says must receive a copy in order to clear or modify the person’s criminal record.
But the information is not kept for the public, although it is technically a public record, a CBI spokeswoman said. It just happened to have them.
And the agency had no other clemency orders for any other governor over the past four decades.
Newspapers and some television stations ordinarily published or broadcast a story about the governors’ commutations and pardons, but rarely included all the names. Instead, the news outlets would highlight a case or two of note and merely blanket the remainder in an overall number of clemencies issued.
And in a few instances, such as with Gov. Dick Lamm, stories were skipped entirely, leaving no researchable trace of who was released or forgiven or why.
“It sure seems like there ought to be some public record of very official acts of the governor, particularly clemency,” said Mark Silverstein, the legal director for the ACLU of Colorado. “I suppose if you believe the people and the public have a stake in the criminal laws for conviction, they’d also have an interest in the executive who decides to undo a conviction or a jury’s verdict.”
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