’Tis the season for politicians to spend an hour in front of cameras with turkeys. Two turkeys from a Hormel subsidiary in Minnesota were apparently shipped to Washington, DC, in a stretch black Cadillac Escalade for their White House pardoning ceremony. At a library in the tiny Texas city of Van, the mayor appointed a bird named Dolly Pardon to be a city ambassador. And in Arkansas on Friday morning, the turkeys sat motionless on a table littered with fake leaves while Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave a speech granting them clemency.
But in the case of Sanders, what might seem like a lighthearted political stunt is much darker when you consider the context, the Arkansas Times pointed out this week. Earlier this month, Sanders denied a request for executive clemency for a man with severe developmental disabilities who has spent 32 years in state prison for crime he almost certainly did not commit, according to an investigation by journalist Radley Balko.
Charlie Vaughn was one of four men convicted for the 1988 murder of 81-year-old Myrtle Holmes. According to Balko, Vaughn was held in jail for a year and insisted on his innocence before a publicly assigned attorney advised him to confess in order to avoid the death penalty. Vaughn’s confession contradicted the facts of the crime, but the judge sentenced him to life in prison anyway, commenting, “I’m sure that some governor somewhere down the road will reduce the sentence or commute it to a term of years.”
Decades later, another one of the four, Reginald Early, confessed to the crime and insisted he had acted alone. As a result, the two other suspects had their convictions overturned, but because Vaughn—imprisoned, illiterate, and without an attorney—did not file a claim within a year, the state argued that he could not benefit from the new evidence. Federal courts rejected Vaughn’s appeals to be freed. Last year, the Arkansas Parole Board rejected his petition.
Vaughn’s lawyer told Balko he received no explanation for why the Sanders rejected Vaughn’s clemency petition. Unless the Arkansas Supreme Court grants a habeas petition from Vaughn—an unlikely event—his best hope for release from prison is to reapply for clemency in six more years.
Sanders, meanwhile, is spending her time pushing to expanding her state’s carceral system. The morning before her turkey pardoning ceremony, she called on the state Board of Corrections to approve 500 additional prison beds, claiming that that Arkansas had weak penalties for violent crime and required space to lock up an additional 2,000 people.
If every US state were a country, Arkansas would have the 11th-highest incarceration rate in the world, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.