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An Overview of What is a Reprieve

The consequences of dealing with a criminal conviction are severe and may follow an individual for the rest of their life. Even worse, a defendant may receive a death sentence for certain crimes. Reprieves are a limited form of clemency. Essentially, a reprieve is a stay on the punishment of a defendant. Simply put, a reprieve halts the implementation of a punishment for a short time. Some refer to reprieves as a “stay of execution.”

Although a reprieve is temporary, it is also a powerful tool to challenge a conviction, reduce a sentence or avoid execution. Above all, it is a significant step towards freedom after a criminal conviction. It may be an inmate's opportunity to overturn a conviction.

What is Reprieve Law?

Primarily, reprieve law addresses the authority of the president and state governors to stop the imposition of a criminal punishment for a certain period of time. The U.S. Constitution sets out the authority for presidential reprieve law for federal crimes. Similarly, state constitutions address the reprieve law for state governors. The state process may restrain governors more than the president in granting clemency.

What are the Typical Reasons for Staying the Implementation of a Sentence?

There are no limits on the reasons why a president grants a reprieve. Some of the common reasons for a reprieve include: (1) the discovery of new evidence; (2) a late-filed appeal; (3) a possible error in the investigation or trial; (4) extraordinary personal circumstances; or (5) an unfairly harsh sentence.

Additionally, many state governors grant reprieves in death penalty cases out of their opposition to the death penalty. A state governor may not have the authority to abolish the death penalty by executive action only. In those cases, the state governor can stay the execution for the remainder of the governor’s turn. As such, the governor avoids the imposition of the death penalty while in office. Hopefully, the state legislature or the highest state court bans the death penalty in the meantime. Alternatively, the stay on execution might leave enough time for a state governor to get the required approval for a pardon or sentence reduction.

Granting a reprieve may give an inmate more time to file an appeal. Some inmates struggle with incompetent or ineffective legal representation at the hands of defense attorneys throughout their case. Unfortunately, they could run out of appeal options by missing a deadline or not pursuing a valid legal argument. A reprieve pauses the inmate’s sentence to find an effective defense attorney for filing an appeal.

What is an Example of a Reprieve?

Death penalty cases in state courts commonly involve reprieves from state governors. According to Amnesty International, state governors issued a reprieve in 60% of death penalty cases in 2018. This is a reduction from the 72% rate of reprieves in the prior year’s state death penalty cases.

Warren K. Henness of Ohio

One of the recent high-profile examples of a reprieve involved Warren K. Henness. In August 2019, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine ordered a stay of execution until May 14, 2020. Despite a lack of evidence and no motive for the crime, Henness received a death sentence for the murder of Richard Myers. However, the fingerprints and blood at the crime scene were not his. Also, only two co-defendants with criminal records and substance abuse problems placed Henness at the crime. Incredibly, his lawyer only spent a total of 12 hours on his case before trial. The detective on the case destroyed key evidence against Henness while the case was on appeal.

737 California Inmates on Death Row

In March 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued reprieves for 737 inmates facing execution. He expressed regret that he could not unilaterally in commuting those death sentences. In California, the state supreme court must approve a pardon or sentence reduction for inmates convicted of two or more felonies. The last execution in California was in 2006.

What is a Reprieve in Government?

Historically, the president’s reprieve and pardon powers contributed to peaceful transitions between political powers in office. A reprieve in government affords the president and other government officials or bodies the chance to evaluate a criminal conviction.

What is the Power of Reprieve?

The power of reprieve refers to the authority of the executive to put a hold on the imposition of a criminal sentence. Unfortunately, it does not put off the sentence forever. State constitutions spell out the specific clemency powers for each state governor concerning convictions for state crimes. State governors may have to get approval from other government branches before granting some forms of clemency. Also, some states impose a time limit on the duration of a stay on a sentence.

What Does Reprieve Granted Mean?

Following a criminal conviction, a person who receives a reprieve gains a temporary stay in the implementation of their sentence. Once the term of the stay expires, the defendant might have to endure the same punishment. But there is a chance that during or after the short delay, the defendant receives an exoneration, full pardon, reduction in sentence or some other helpful relief.

Who Can Grant a Reprieve?

The authority to grant a stay for a criminal sentence depends on the nature of the underlying criminal conviction. For instance, clemency options vary for state and federal crimes. State governors may grant reprieves for defendants convicted of a crime under their state laws and sentenced to serve prison time in their state.

Overall, state governors issue more stays on imposing criminal sentences than the president.

What is a Presidential Reprieve?

First of all, a presidential reprieve falls under the executive clemency powers of the president. This power comes from Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constitution and is limited to the president at the federal level. The constitution states that the president “shall have Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.”

No other federal government official, body or agency has this power.  It is only available for federal criminal cases. The major restriction on presidential clemency power is for crimes related to impeachment. The Supreme Court rejected congressional limits on the president’s clemency power in United States v. Klein (1871).

What is the Difference Between a Reprieve and Pardon?

Generally, clemency powers exist so that those deserving individuals who have been convicted of and sentenced for a crime can live productive lives. They allow the president to intervene in cases where criminal defendants suffered an injustice. Pardons empower individuals convicted of crimes to participate fully in society and avoid the stigma of having a criminal record.

Some people confuse reprieves with pardons because they are both clemency options. However, a pardon requires the petitioner to acknowledge that a crime happened. Thus, some individuals refuse to accept a pardon because they do not want to admit any guilt. In many cases, convicted individuals request reprieves based on their innocence. They hope for a re-examination of evidence or consideration of new evidence before sentencing or serving a sentence. A reprieve does not acknowledge a convicted individual’s innocence.

Moreover, reprieves are much narrower than pardons. On one hand, a pardon officially and permanently forgives an individual for a crime. Therefore, a pardoned individual suffers no further consequences for their crime. Unlike a pardon, they are only temporary. Although it may result in a defendant’s release from prison or removal from death row, there is no guarantee.

Historically, presidents grant pardons more frequently than delays of sentences. Each president exercises executive clemency powers based on their own policies.

What is the Difference Between a Pardon, Reprieve and Commutation?

A commutation is another form of clemency. It involves a reduction in the prison sentence of a criminal defendant. The president has the constitutional authority to grant commutations for federal crimes. On the other hand, state authorities handle commutations of prison sentences for convictions of state crimes.

Furthermore, some people also confuse reprieves and commutations. While a commutation is a reduction in prison sentences, a reprieve only stalls a criminal sentence. Along those lines, a reprieve may lead to a commutation. It gives the president or governor more time to consider granting a pardon or commutation.

 

Brandon Sample, PLC Assists with Pursuing Clemency Options After a Criminal Conviction

As you can see, obtaining a reprieve for a criminal conviction can be a major first step towards restoring your life and avoiding a criminal sentence. As such, the possibility of obtaining a reprieve should be taken seriously. In addition, it may also be time-sensitive because defendants want it in place before their sentence starts. This means that delays in the reprieve application process are detrimental.

Overall, those convicted of a crime who try to obtain a reprieve on their own may have a much more difficult time than those who work with a helpful criminal defense attorney. The application process and information required for a reprieve can be difficult to manage effectively without the proper legal background and training. Fortunately, a skilled criminal defense lawyer can streamline the reprieve process and increase the odds of receiving a reprieve.

Call or Contact Our Office Online

Contact the trusted team of criminal defense advocates at Brandon Sample, PLC today for a free initial consultation. The Brandon Sample, PLC criminal defense attorneys are always prepared and ready to help you or a loved one apply for a reprieve in your criminal case. We have vast experience in seeking a reprieve for clients across the country. Fill out this simple form to contact our office and request your first appointment with one of our capable criminal defense attorneys. Lastly, you can call our office at 802-444-HELP (4357) if you need an immediate response.

 

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