Governor Gavin Newsom yesterday asked for Supreme Court approval to grant clemency to six people, including a second attempt to commute a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. The first attempt failed when a divided court over four years ago denied then-Governor Jerry Brown’s request for a clemency recommendation.
The state constitution requires a governor to get an affirmative court recommendation before granting clemency to anyone who has been “twice convicted of a felony.”
The court has said it reviews clemency recommendation requests under a deferential standard. (See here and here.) And Newsom has a nearly perfect record — he withdrew one request before a ruling, but the court has approved all 51 of his other requests. That’s better than former Governor Brown, who had the court without explanation block 10 intended clemency grants. The denial of a request implies that a clemency grant would be an abuse of power.
One of the 10 unsuccessful Brown clemency requests was for Elaine Wong. With Justice Goodwin Liu recording a dissenting vote, the court in December 2018 declined to recommend that her life-without-parole sentence be commuted. The court later rejected a motion to explain the denial, but it did unseal part of Wong’s first clemency request record in 2021. Now, Newsom is trying again on her behalf.
[August 16 update: Supreme Court approves another LWOP clemency request it had previously blocked.]
This is not Newsom’s first attempt at a second chance for clemency. After the court denied Brown’s 2018 request for permission to commute Howard Ford’s life-without-parole sentence (with a pro tem justice possibly casting the deciding vote), Newsom asked again in October 2021. This time, the court recommended the commutation without a noted dissent. The court did not give any reason for its opposite rulings.
When the court granted Newsom’s first clemency recommendation request in August 2019, Justice Liu issued a separate statement essentially inviting resubmission of earlier failed clemency recommendation requests.
The latest recommendation requests are for:
Beverly Taylor — seeking a pardon for 1998 and 1999 drug-related felony convictions. [May 17 update: in response to a motion by the Orange County District Attorney to unseal, the court returned the record to the Governor, ordering him to resubmit it with justification for keeping any parts of it confidential. Part of the record will likely end up being open to the public. (See, e.g., here.)]
Danny Lilly — seeking a pardon for a 1969 conviction of driving under the influence and entering a noncommercial dwelling and a 1979 conviction of taking a vehicle without the owner’s consent.
Elaine Wong — seeking (for a second time; see above) to commute a 1981 sentence of life without parole plus 17 years for first degree murder, two counts of attempted murder, assault with intent to commit murder, and robbery with sentence enhancements. As with other prisoners serving life-without-parole sentences, the letter to the court states, “The Governor is contemplating a commutation of sentence that would make Ms. Wong eligible for a parole suitability hearing.”
Jeffrey Mason — seeking a pardon for 1995 and 1997 drug-related felony convictions.
Josue Flores — seeking a pardon for a 1993 conviction of second degree burglary and shooting at an inhabited vehicle.
Roy Sarver — seeking a pardon for a 1968 conviction of attempted second degree burglary and second degree burglary.