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How The Pandemic Undermines Humanity Along With Immunity

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.


Kurt Thigpen clenched his hands around the edge of the table because if he couldn't feel the sharp edges digging into his palms, he would have to think about how hard his heart was beating. He was grateful that his mask hid his expression. He hoped that no one could see him sweat.

A woman approached the lectern in the center aisle, a thick American flag scarf looped around her neck.

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Presidential Pardons: Obama Picks Up The Pace On Commutations

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Near the start of his second term, President Obama had granted clemency at a lower rate than any president in recent history. He had pardoned 39 people and denied 1,333 requests. He had used his power to commute a prisoner’s sentence just once.

But as Obama enters the final days of his administration, he has dramatically picked up the pace. He’s now issued commutations to 1,176 people since entering office — more than George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan put together. In December, Obama commuted the sentences of 231 people in a single day.

Much of Obama’s increased activity can be attributed to an initiative begun in 2014 to shorten sentences of non-violent offenders who would likely have received less time for their crimes under current law and who had already served at least 10 years of their prison sentences. Low-level drug offenders have received most of the commutations, part of a broader push by the administration to reform sentencing guidelines.

“Historically, clemency has been used to heal national wounds after a war,” said Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota who started the first federal commutations law clinic. “There was a big batch of grants during and after the Civil War, after World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War — and in a way, Obama is doing it after the War on Drugs.”

While Obama’s commutation numbers have accelerated, they do not, as the White House has put in press releases, exceed those of the last 11 presidents combined, Osler pointed out. Gerald Ford put together a clemency board in 1974 specifically looking to pardon Vietnam War draft dodgers. In just a year, the board reviewed 31,500 petitions and recommended clemency for 13,603.

Presidents have broad power to forgive federal offenses. Pardons and commutations don’t erase convictions, but pardons “forgive” a crime and can restore rights such as voting and remove hiring barriers. Commutations reduce sentences but do not restore rights such as voting.

To determine who receives clemency, Obama, like his predecessors, relies on recommendations from the Office of the Pardon Attorney, the arm of the Justice Department that reviews applications. A would-be petitioner is eligible for a pardon after a five-year waiting period and must fill out a lengthy petition. Clemency petitions makes their way through seven different layers of review and four separate federal buildings. As he’s granted almost 1,200 requests for commutations, Obama has denied 14,485, according to Department of Justice statistics.

It’s a slow process that’s not designed to handle the current federal prison population, said New York University School of Law professor Rachel Barkow, who serves as a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. That’s one reason Obama’s clemency push has fallen short of Ford’s.

“I think he tried to use the existing structure to do something that really hadn’t been done before, and it think the structure just struggled,” Barkow said. “There’s not enough people to deal with it, there was too much bureaucracy and it shouldn’t be in the DOJ. It’s asking too much to ask prosecutors to rethink what they already did.”

Paul Larkin, who directs the Heritage Foundation’s project on criminal law, suggested that Obama first tried to address the problem of mandatory minimums by sending guidelines through Congress. The legislative efforts resulted in the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which increased the thresholds of drug amounts to trigger mandatory minimum sentences.

But the act didn’t apply retroactively, so Obama has turned to clemency.

“He waited until way too late to start,” Larkin said. “He should have started right then and there exercising his clemency power.”

Larkin, too, suggested moving the clemency process out of the Department of Justice — away from prosecutors who brought cases against the petitioners in the first place — and putting it in the White House, headed by the vice president.

Obama pardoned 78 people one day last month, but has still issued fewer pardons than his predecessors. Likely, Osler said, the pardon attorney’s resources have been taken up with commutations. Obama also has so far sidestepped pardon requests for Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, the most politically charged cases likely to cross his desk. He has given no indication that he’ll grant pardons to either.

The pardons process came under scrutiny in a 2011 ProPublica investigation which found that white applicants seeking presidential pardons were four times as likely to get them as minorities, even when applicants had committed similar crimes. An analysis of about 500 pardons issued during the George W. Bush’s administration found that advocacymade a difference, especially by those with political connections. Support from a member of Congress substantially increased the chance of a pardon.

In one case, our investigation found, the former Pardon Attorney, Ronald Rodgers, had left out crucial evidence in his recommendation to the Bush administration to deny one petitioner’s appeal for a commutation. Rodgers was replaced as pardon attorney and the prisoner’s sentence was commuted in 2014.

After ProPublica’s investigation, the Department of Justice funded a study to examine the role of race in the pardons process. The results were supposed to have been released in 2015. DOJ officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the status of the study, saying only that new pardons data was under review and “a report should be available in fall 2017.”

The incoming Trump administration seems unlikely to continue Obama’s push to commute sentences of low-level drug offenders. Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick to head the DOJ, has vocally supported mandatory minimums and harsh drug laws. Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks did not respond to a request for comment.

IMAGE: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to reporters during his visit to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution outside Oklahoma City in this July 16, 2015 file photo.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/Files

The Absolute Best, Most Terrific Reporting On Trump University

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica. Update November 19, 2016: President-elect Trump has agreed to pay $25 million to settle lawsuits from students who say they were defrauded by Trump University.

Trump University promised to help students get rich. Enrollees would study the wisdom of The Donald and get mentoring from other terrific businesspeople. But a class-action suit by former students and a suit brought by the New York attorney general allege that the unaccredited “school” mainly helped students part with the money in their wallets. (Trump has called the suits a “scam” and “thug politics.”)

Trump Spins in Foreclosure Game

The Los Angeles Times, December 2007

As subprime mortgages were skyrocketing in 2007, columnist David Lazarus noticed a Trump University ad promising to teach students how to make “millions in foreclosures.” So Lazarus went to class. The instructor had never bought a house in California, had been through bankruptcy, and had gone through foreclosure with his own home. After the column ran, Trump told Lazarus it was “inaccurate and libelous.” When Lazarus asked what the problem was, Trump said, “You’ll find out in court.” Trump never sued. But he did submit a letter to the editor, which he demanded that the paper run in extra-large print.

Trump U. Hit by Complaints From Those Who Paid Up to 30G, and Say They Got Very Little in Return

New York Daily News, May 2010

By 2010, 150 people had filed complaints with 22 states about Trump University, the New York Daily News found. The school had just received a D- rating from the Better Business Bureau. One former student in California complained she paid $80,000 for access to mentors who didn’t call her back. Another student, a New York City schoolteacher, said she lost her savings, maxed out her credit cards, and had nothing to show for it.

Tales From the Trump University Legal Vault

Politico, March 2016

A 2010 playbook for Trump University gave staff handy instructions: Like to how to rank students based on assets to determine who was most likely to buy more Trump University classes. Or what to do “if an attorney general arrives on the scene.” (Show them nothing unless they have a warrant and call someone named April Neumann “immediately”.)

Trump University Hired Motivational Speakers and a Felon as Faculty

The Daily Beast, March 2016

One Trump University instructor liked to tell students his “rags-to-riches” story: He was homeless in a subway at 19, where he met someone who taught him about real estate and became a top broker. He left out a few details, though: He threatened to kill his ex-wife and was convicted for aggravated assault. Trump once said he “hand-picked” the instructors and then changed his tune to say he doesn’t remember the employees.

At Trump University, Students Recall Pressure to Give Positive Reviews

The New York Times, March 2016

Trump likes to tout the 98 percent approval rating Trump University received from its students. But the surveys, according to legal documents and interviews with former staff and students, weren’t anonymous and were submitted to instructors in exchange for graduation certificates. One instructor said he asked students to fill out the survey in front of him. A former student said he was pressured by his mentor to give the mentor top ratings. (Trump has not backed down on the number. See his website: 98percentapproval.com.)

Trump University and the Art of the Get-rich Seminar

Ars Technica, April 2016

Before Trump University there was Trump Institute. And before Trump Institute there was the National Grants Conference, a seminar founded by Mike and Irene Milin that claimed it could teach students how to get government grants—for memberships at only $999. None of the NGC members got money, but NGC raked in millions from students. In 2006, Trump licensed his name to the Milins to create the Trump Institute. Trump Institute kept much of NGC’s old materials but promised to share the billionaire secrets. But the NGC soon fell into legal trouble in multiple states, and Trump didn’t renew the license with them in 2009. By that time, Trump University was well established, but still using the same tactics the Milins started at the National Grants Conference.

Trump Involved in Crafting Controversial Trump University Ads, Executive Testified

The Washington Post, May 2016

Donald Trump personally vetted ads and shaped the promotion of Trump University—contrary to what his lawyers had implied—according to the 2012 deposition of Trump University’s president. The deposition, part of a class-action lawsuit brought by former students, was released along with other trial records in response to a request from the Washington Post. Another document showed that a portion of Trump University speaker fees were directly tied to how many students the speaker could get to sign up for more seminars.

Florida AG Asked Trump for Donation Before Nixing Fraud Case

The Associated Press, June 2016

In September 2013, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi announced that she was considering New York’s investigation of Trump University. Four days later, a group supporting Bondi’s reelection got a $25,000 donation from a Trump family foundation. Bondi had personally solicited the donation. After the check came in, Bondi’s office announced that it would not join the investigation. Bondi has since endorsed Trump for president. Bondi declined to comment.

We Won’t Ever Find Out Why Rust Never Sleeps In ‘True Detective’

By Sara Smith, The Kansas City Star

(If you haven’t watched all of “True Detective” through last week’s episode, be warned of spoilers ahead.)

Thanks to “True Detective,” people are quoting Matthew McConaughey again. Because, as he will demonstrate with a mangled beer can, “time is a flat circle. Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again.”

“True Detective,” the runaway HBO hit about two Louisiana cops chasing an elusive evil for two decades, wraps up its first season on Sunday. Rustin Cohle (McConaughey) and his old partner Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) are all set to nail down at least one part of whatever awfulness is coming.

The show, set to end its story after eight hourlong segments, has been analyzed at “Breaking Bad” levels of delightful, annoying geekdom, making it the latest frustrating, intricate TV drama turned social experiment.

Sunday nights have a lot of shows like that, because Monday mornings go down easier with a round of “Did you watch? Are you caught up?” My work friends, bless their hearts, maintain a spoiler-free zone — within reason. Don’t be saving the “Game of Thrones” finale for four days, that’s just rude.

“True Detective” deserves most of the effusive praise it’s getting, managing to be dark, sexy, terrifying and sad, sometimes all at once. Rust’s flat, detached manner of talking about his baby daughter’s death cuts deep.

“The hubris it must take to yank a soul out of nonexistence, into this meat,” he muses. “And to force a life into this thresher. Yeah, so my daughter, she — uh, she spared me the sin of being a father.”

Shows like “True Detective” swarm your Facebook feed, and given the chance to actually catch up, eventually you join the other drones reconvening at the hive (Twitter, et al.) to toil with singular intent (parsing Townes Van Zandt lyrics).

If only Reddit had been around for “Twin Peaks.” Fans had to find each other at parties by dropping obscure references to chewing gum and midgets. Rows of VCR titles were prominently displayed in dorm rooms. It was a simpler time.

In one David Lynch-esque moment of “True Detective,” birds flock into a replica of a victim’s spiral-shaped tattoo in a nearby field. Symbolism can be its own reward, especially in a story being told by guys who hallucinate and drink until dawn.

Still, the kind of unreliable narrator who would steal coke from the evidence room — with Lucinda Williams on the soundtrack, no less — invites scrutiny, and thus began the amateur and professional dissection of the show, especially McConaughey’s character.

The way series creator Nic Pizzolatto tells it, even Rust would say, “Y’all are over-thinking things.”

“Like, why do you think we’re tricking you?” asked Pizzolatto in a recent Daily Beast interview. “It’s because you’ve been abused as an audience for more than 20 years.”

And yet, “True Detective” is stuffed with visual meta-narratives that disturb without enlightening. The finale’s preview capsule merely says that “an overlooked detail will provide Hart and Cohle with an important new lead in their 17-year-old case.”

Just one detail? Where to begin? How about that red mark on bad guy Reggie Ledoux’s forehead? It looks a lot like the one on the Marshland Madea, the supposedly unrelated murdering mom Rust advises to kill herself after she signs her confession.

When Rust goes to visit the only survivor of the shadowy forces along the bayou, why is the mental hospital’s flower mural a replica of the artwork in his partner’s bedroom?

We’re supposed to notice that Marty is watching “The Searchers” while he eats his Lean Cuisine, right? The movie where John Wayne tries to rescue a little girl from a guy named Scar. Got it.

All of this feels a lot like Megan Draper on “Mad Men” wearing Sharon Tate’s T-shirt: Take note, feel smart, but no one really expects the Manson Family.

These diversions are more welcome here, actually, because the “True Detective” universe is finite. As absorbing as these cops are, eight hours is plenty of time to spend with their bourbon and cigarettes, hot- and cold-blooded violence and “Apocalypse Now” jungle hangouts.

So if the mysterious villain the Yellow King turns out to be a fire, or the sun, or a sheet of blotter acid, or that fast-food joint from the end of Episode 5, no big deal. Sometimes the breadcrumbs go in a circle.

I don’t even need to know why Rust never sleeps. But Marty’s daughter Audrey? She has some explaining to do.

The little girl’s sinister doll play and disturbing sexual drawings evolved into unfortunate amounts of eyeliner and risky teenage sex. The implication that she was, at least, a witness to something awful is not just a figurine on someone’s table. Audrey would be the worst string to leave untied, and exactly the kind of trickery Pizzolatto denies.

“My life’s been a circle of violence and degradation, as long as I can remember,” Rust announced last week as he and Marty worked on a plan that included a parish sheriff, a boat and jumper cables. “I’m ready to tie it off.”

But he has this one last thing.

There’s a reason, beyond the possibility of a Special Agent Childress or Tuttle in the shadows, that Rust has not turned over his storage unit full of evidence — including a videotape! — to the FBI.

Rust is just like everyone who has watched this far: He wants to be the one who figures it out. But it’s not all going to get figured out, ever.

Photo: Drollgirl via Flickr