Bills would alter the pardon process

Change would give parole board time to notify victims

Posted: Thursday, January 25, 2007

Jessica Ridinger stood ready to serve rice pilaf, tilapia and garlic bread to her family on a December evening when the phone rang.

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The caller, a reporter from a daily newspaper, said the company found criminally responsible for her father's death eight years ago had received a pardon from former Gov. Frank Murkowski.

This was the first notice she received, leaving her stunned and no longer interested in dinner.

"Everything stopped for the night," she said. "I was in shock and totally in the dark."

Now, just a few weeks later, state lawmakers want to make sure victims and their families no longer receive such surprises.

Bills in the House and the Senate have been the subject of such discussion in various committees throughout the week.

While the bills still are being tweaked, lawmakers are hoping for a change that says the governor may not act on a pardon application for 180 days after receipt.

This gives the parole board time to contact a victim or family members like Ridinger, and gives the board time to investigate each case.

Ridinger, whose father Gary Stone died in an avalanche while working for Whitewater Engineering Corp., said she hopes the bills eventually receive the approval of Gov. Sarah Palin, who succeeded Murkowski.

"To not be blindsided would have been really nice," Ridinger said. "If we would have been told this is something being considered and this might happen, then at least we would have had a chance to digest what might happen."

Rep. Ralph Samuels, R-Anchorage, a longtime victims' advocate, and Senate President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, are sponsoring separate bills.

Their bills are quietly progressing in the shadows of more high-profile issues such as ethics reform, budget and construction of a natural gas pipeline.

While hardly controversial, the issue is gaining attention of victims' rights organizations outside the state, as well.

Samuels says he's not trying to strip any governor of a constitutional right to hand down a pardon, also known as executive clemency.

The effort is about "access to the system" for victims such as Gary Stone's five surviving children, and "holding people accountable," he said.

"Just notify the victim," he said. "If you can make that phone call, and pass the red-face test, pardon away. If you can't, you don't get a pardon."

Green's Chief of Staff Portia Babcock testified to the Senate's State Affairs committee about the constitutional backing of the bill.

She said a change calling for notification is consistent with the constitutional rights of the crime victims and does not infringe on the governor's right to grant clemency.

Babcock said the case of the Stone family being kept in the dark illustrates how the state's current statutes are "behind the times."

Meg Garvin, program director for Lewis & Clark College School of Law's National Crime Victim Law Institute in Portland, Ore., agrees. Garvin says at least 35 states have a law that calls for some form of notification.



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