Later today, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders will “pardon” a turkey in front of the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion. If her previous attempts to seem normal and relatable are any indication, Sanders’s granting of executive indulgence to the bird will prompt a smattering of half-hearted laughter and applause before being immediately forgotten.
But it appears the governor is oblivious to the grotesque optics of this particular ceremony at this particular time.
A couple of weeks ago, Radley Balko wrote a scathing piece about Sanders’ denial of Charlie Vaughn’s request for executive clemency. Vaughn — a man with a developmental disability and mental illness — was convicted in 1991 for the 1988 murder of an elderly Fordyce woman. In the intervening 32 years, a different man confessed to the murder, and a mountain of other evidence of Vaughn’s innocence has come to light.
All of these facts were presented to Sanders in a clemency petition filed by Vaughn’s attorney in June. When Vaughn’s attorney followed up in July with Sanders’ chief legal counsel, Cortney Kennedy, he received the crushing news:
The Governor completed her review of Mr. Vaughn’s file last week. Unfortunately, she has chosen not to grant clemency at this time. He will be able to reapply in 6 years, pursuant to statute.
That’s it. No explanation as to why Sanders “chose” to deny the petition. Not even a communication from Sanders to Vaughn’s attorney until the attorney reached out for an update. Just a three-sentence email from Sanders’ chief legal counsel, topped off by a cold note that Vaughn — who has been in prison for over 30 years for a crime he did not commit — could try again six years later.
Sanders’ communications director, Alexa Henning, did not respond to the Arkansas Times’ request for comment on this story.
Sanders has made no secret of her ghoulish desire to lock up more Arkansans, for longer periods of time, despite decades of academic studies showing increased incarceration does nothing to fix crime. Earlier today, in fact, Sanders and Attorney General Tim Griffin held a press conference whining that the Arkansas Board of Corrections had refused a request to open an additional 500 beds in existing prisons around the state.
That she could personally have freed up one bed by simply doing the moral, right, and just thing with respect to Charlie Vaughn did not seem to cause her any intellectual heartburn as she was making this statement. Not that you would expect her to engage in that kind of self-reflection when it comes to how she governs. In Sanders’ politically nihilistic worldview, her actions are not important, at least not in and of themselves. All that matters is how those actions increase or decrease her appeal on the national stage.
Just like turning a Walnut Ridge food pantry into pro-Sanders propaganda, any event Sanders does seems designed to add another three or four seconds on the highlight reel of Real Governor Stuff that she’s been compiling as an audition tape to be someone’s vice presidential running mate in 2024.
So even if the optics of a turkey pardon are horrendous when placed into context, that doesn’t change how the political math works in Sanders’ world: A silly holiday photo op has a small amount of political value, while allowing a sliver of grace and humanity to a man who the justice system failed decades ago does not.
It really is that simple for Sanders, even if it means that an innocent man has to wait another six years to possibly get out of prison.