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Jack Kelly: Clinton's mercy is political

Freeing Puerto Rican terrorists is about courting votes

Sunday, September 12, 1999

The quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth as a gentle rain from heaven . . . if you can cross the president's palm with silver, or round up a few votes for his wife.

  Jack Kelly is national affairs writer for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. His e-mail address is 

Shakespeare wrote tragedies and comedies. What the Clintons author is mostly farce, but with dangerous undertones.

Consider the president's decision to pardon Puerto Rican terrorists. Dick Morris, who knows the Clintons better than any other commentator, said: "Anyone who doesn't believe the timing, and likely the substance, of Bill's decision was linked to Hillary's courtship of New York's large Puerto Rican vote is too naive for politics."

To come up with a rationale for the pardons that does not involve politics, one must engage in a Clintonesque parsing of language.

From 1974 to 1983, two small terrorist groups, the Armed Forces of National Liberation (Spanish acronym FALN) and Los Macheteros, carried out at least 130 bombings, which killed six people and seriously injured dozens more. Eventually, 16 defendants were convicted on charges including armed robbery, bomb making and sedition. All received long sentences.

Clinton apologists say the pardons are justified because none of those offered clemency were convicted of planting the bombs. That is, committing robberies to finance the terror campaign, and building the bombs are much less serious offenses than placing the bombs. This is like saying the life sentence Terry Nichols got for his part in the Oklahoma City bombing was unfair because he was miles away from the Murrah building when the bomb he helped build exploded.

President Clinton has not heretofore been reknowned for his compassion for murderers. He interrupted his campaign for president in 1992 to return to Arkansas for the execution of a black cop killer who was so brain damaged he thought he was going to get a piece of pecan pie after his execution.

When it suited his purposes to appear tough on crime, Bill Clinton was hard against cop killers. But cop killing is not so bad, apparently, when the killers represent a sizable ethnic vote.

If justice, rather than politics, were the criterion for a presidential pardon, Clinton would be freeing the Branch Davidians who actually did receive sentences far in excess of the crimes for which they were convicted, and of which they may be innocent.

After the holocaust at the Branch Davidian commune, a jury in Waco found 11 survivors not guilty of murder or conspiracy to murder, but seven were convicted of aiding and abetting the voluntary manslaughter of a federal officer, five of carrying a firearm during commission of a crime of violence. Judge Walter Smith sentenced these five- to 40-year prison terms, to the astonishment of the jury.

A federal appeals court ordered Smith to review the sentences, because they appear to be too severe.

The convictions were based on the assumption that agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were telling the truth when they said the Davidians had initiated the firefight in which four BATF agents were killed. The Davidians say the feds shot first. Evidence that may have clarified the issue was destroyed in the fire, which was convenient for the government.

It is reasonable to assume that if the Branch Davidians had started the shooting or the fire, they'd lie about it. But where the credibility of the Davidians can be compared with that of various federal officials, it's the feds who have been caught dissimulating.

Attorney General Janet Reno said she ordered the disastrous assault on April 19 because children in the compound were being molested. Untrue, says the Texas Department of Public Welfare. The BATF said it launched its original assault because there was a methamphetamine lab on the property. Untrue, says the county sheriff. Now we learn that the FBI was lying when agents said they didn't use incendiary devices, and the Army was lying when it said no soldiers from Delta Force were present.

Maybe these were innocuous deceits, and there is nothing more to be learned about Waco.

But if this is so, why is the BATF trying to prevent the Texas Rangers from sifting through the 24,000 pounds of evidence it gathered from the site, and why did the Justice Department try to prevent Judge Smith from seeing the memoranda that were written about the siege?

The BATF and the FBI say they assaulted the Branch Davidians in order to protect us. I suspect we have more to fear from the politicization of justice than from a tiny religious cult that never bothered anyone during the nearly 60 years it was in Waco.

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