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Kentucky Senate advances proposal to limit pardon powers

February 26, 2020 GMT
FILE - In this Nov. 14, 2019, file photo, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin speaks with reporters in Frankfort, Ky as he conceded the gubernatorial race to Democrat challenger Andy Beshear. The Kentucky Senate has advanced a proposal to prevent governors from issuing last-minute pardons before leaving office. The proposed constitutional change is a response to a flurry of controversial pardons by the previous governor, Republican Matt Bevin. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 14, 2019, file photo, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin speaks with reporters in Frankfort, Ky as he conceded the gubernatorial race to Democrat challenger Andy Beshear. The Kentucky Senate has advanced a proposal to prevent governors from issuing last-minute pardons before leaving office. The proposed constitutional change is a response to a flurry of controversial pardons by the previous governor, Republican Matt Bevin. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Responding to an outcry over former Gov. Matt Bevin’s flurry of last-minute pardons, the Kentucky Senate advanced a proposed constitutional change Wednesday to prevent his successors from doing the same thing in their final days in office.

In pushing for the proposed constitutional amendment, Sen. Chris McDaniel read headlines about Bevin’s pardon spree, as well as last-minute pardons by some of his predecessors. Some pardons and commutations were for crimes such as murder and child rape.

The measure cleared the Senate, 33-4, and now goes to the House.

It would amend the state’s Constitution to strip a governor of pardon powers for the month leading up to a gubernatorial election and for the time between the election and inauguration. If the bill clears the GOP-dominated legislature, it would go on this year’s ballot for voters to decide the issue.

McDaniel, a Republican, said his proposal amounts to a “small limitation” that would bring greater accountability to a governor’s “unilateral” pardon authority.

“If a governor believes in a pardon strongly enough, he or she or their party can stand in front of the voters to decide the voters’ opinions of those actions,” he said.

“There will be no more hiding in the darkness of the last minutes of an administration,” McDaniel added. “There will be no more allowing the rich and the powerful to influence the scales of justice without recourse from the voters of the commonwealth.”

Bevin issued hundreds of pardons between his electoral defeat in November and his final day in office in December. Several stirred outrage from victims or their families, prosecutors and lawmakers, and Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron asked the FBI to investigate.

Bevin has defended his pardons. In a December interview with the Courier Journal, he said he was convinced that some he pardoned of crimes, including murder, rape and child abuse, are innocent.

One of those Bevin pardoned, Patrick Baker, had served about two years of a 19-year sentence for reckless homicide and robbery in the slaying of a Knox County man in front of his family. Baker’s brother held a campaign fundraiser for Bevin in 2018. The pardon provoked widespread outrage.

However, many of the former governor’s pardons drew praise from some as a show of compassion and righting injustices, including for hundreds of nonviolent drug offenders.

The new governor, Democrat Andy Beshear, weighed in on the issue earlier Wednesday.

“You can understand somebody wanting to respond to the terrible pardons we saw from the last administration and the reasons that were offered for them,” Beshear told reporters. “But I don’t necessarily think you change a power of a governor based on one bad actor.”

Beshear, Kentucky’s former attorney general who defeated Bevin in last year’s election, offered assurances that his approach to pardons “would be very, very different.”

On Tuesday, the state Senate passed a separate measure that would add a list of crime victims’ rights to Kentucky’s Constitution. The provisions would include ensuring crime victims have the right to be notified and heard when a governor considers granting a pardon or sentence commutation to their assailants. That language stems from Bevin’s pardons.

The measure, known as Marsy’s Law, is also headed to the House. It would guarantee, among other things, that crime victims have the right to timely notification of court proceedings, the right to be present for those hearings, the right to be heard in any hearing involving a release, plea or sentencing and the right to consult with prosecutors.

Beshear told reporters Wednesday that he would discuss any potential pardon with a victim or victim’s family before issuing it.