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New Worlds: Granting Pardon

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Having (I think) run through all the crimes I want to discuss in this Patreon — things like blasphemy and prostitution will reappear later, but from angles that have less to do with their status under the law — it seems only fitting to wrap this month up with a discussion of pardons.

In theory, a lot of the punishments we discussed in Year Four are supposed to constitute a pardon of sorts in the end. You did a bad thing, but now you have paid your debt to society, so the consequences are over. In practice, of course, it’s rarely if ever that simple; especially in our modern bureaucratic society, the conviction often remains on your record, and social prejudice or even legal disabilities may persist long after you’ve paid your fine or served your time.

Besides, when we talk about pardons, we usually mean something more directed and active than simply the end of punishment. A pardon saves someone from punishment — either before it’s carried out, or by ending it early. A convict is released from jail, or someone under a death sentence is reprieved from the gallows. There are lesser degrees of this, too, e.g. converting a serious charge to a lesser one, so that what should have resulted in death leads to imprisonment instead, or imprisonment is reduced to a fine.

A pardon, however, is not necessarily the same as a declaration of innocence. Sometimes it’s used that way, when someone is found to have been wrongly convicted, or when they’re considered “morally innocent” of the crime — they did it, but for reasons that don’t merit blame or punishment. Depending on the jurisdiction, though, a pardon comes bundled with an official admission of guilt: after all, you wouldn’t need a pardon if you hadn’t done anything wrong. Where that is true, some individuals offered pardons may prefer to go through with a court case instead, hoping to prove their innocence in full.

Because of this, it’s important to consider what the pardon includes. Does it simply put a stop to the wheels of (in)justice turning, or does it remedy what went before? If someone’s estate or property was confiscated, will that be restored, or will they be compensated in some other fashion? Will the authorities admit to their error and apologize, or is the person just quietly let go? Do records persist of the charge and/or the conviction, or will those be expunged (sealed or destroyed), so there is no longer any available, official documentation to taint that person’s life going forward? Expungement can also happen separate from a pardon; in modern times, this is common for juvenile offenses, to keep youthful errors from bureaucratically haunting someone forever.

In some cases, the pardon is less about the individual in question and more about the law at hand. Some judges in eighteenth-century Britain reacted to their country’s draconian capital punishment system by commuting sentences to a lesser form, not because they believed the convict wasn’t culpable, but because they felt the crime wasn’t worthy of death. Jury nullification can be the citizen equivalent of this, with the jurors delivering a verdict of “not guilty” because they disagree with the law and its application.

This can even be carried out on a grand scale, in the form of an amnesty or mass pardon. These commonly happen in a political context, for example where one regime imprisons its opponents, only for those prisoners to be freed after the opposition takes control. Large-scale pardons can also follow the repeal of a law (no sense continuing to punish people for something that’s not illegal anymore). In some monarchies, it was common for a new sovereign to bestow a general pardon throughout the realm in celebration of their accession — though there might be exceptions carved out, e.g. for murderers or those who’ve committed treason.

Interestingly, the use of pardons can constitute both a measure against corruption, and a demonstration of corruption itself. The state governor who pardons a wrongly convicted Black man is using that power to strike a blow against the effects of racism on the justice system; the queen who pardons a favored courtier framed by his political enemies is sending a message that she will not condone such machinations. Pardons can even be bestowed after the individual in question is dead! And while from one perspective that may seem pointless — after all, the person is dead and gone, sometimes centuries in the past; what good will that show of contrition do them now? — it can still be important for the living, putting it on the record that the authorities have admitted that error and intend not to commit it again.

But it can just as easily go the other way — if not more easily. Any number of powerful individuals have used their right of pardon to save their families and allies from the consequences of their crimes: a political rendition of the military bargain that underlies fealty, “support me and I will protect you.” This can be infuriating for those who went to great lengths to establish the offender’s guilt and obtain a conviction; after all, if the leader is corrupt enough to issue such a pardon, the odds that you have a nicely functioning justice system are low. In a worst-case scenario, such a pardon can wind up being the spark that provokes a rebellion. Or, conversely, fear of such a rebellion is what strong-arms a leader into not pardoning someone. Political pressure drove Charles I of England into signing the death warrant for the Earl of Strafford rather than reprieving him — a move that ultimately still failed to head off the English Civil War.

So one way or another, pardons are a powerful tool: legally, politically, and narratively. They can be a last-ditch method of obtaining justice, or a way of thwarting it; they can be a tool for peace or a cause for war. Sometimes their granting is a result of close personal bonds, and sometimes it’s a mass act of clemency bestowed on total strangers. Even the possibility of a pardon can play a key role in events, regardless of whether it’s ultimately issued or not.

Given how many crimes our characters commit and how many political schemes they run afoul of (or concoct), there’s plenty of room to do more with this tool!

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