Clemency is forgiveness for a crime and the granting of relief from all or part of a sentence; in this case usually the conversion of a death sentence to a life sentence or release. Clemency can encompass pardon, commutation, or reprieve. Clemency does not mean leniency but tempering justice with mercy. As the ACLU works toward the abolition of the death penalty, it urges that the power to punish be moderated with compassion.

Clemency procedures vary from state to state. In 15 states the governor has full and sole authority to grant clemency – Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Kentucky, Mississippi , New Jersey, New Mexico (although it has abolished the death penalty, two inmates remain on death row), North Carolina, Oregon , South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming. In seven states – Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Texas – the governor must have the recommendation of clemency from a board or advisory group. In the remaining death penalty states , a board or advisory group has the sole discretion to grant clemency – Georgia, Nebraska, Nevada, and Utah.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, hundreds of death row inmates have been granted clemency for humanitarian reasons. Humanitarian reasons include doubts about the defendant's guilt or conclusions of the governor regarding the death penalty process. Since 1976, there have been five broad grants of clemencies to death row inmates:

  • Gov. Pat Quinn in Illinois in 2011 (all inmates)
  • Gov. Jon Corzine in New Jersey in 2007 (all inmates)
  • Gov. George Ryan in Illinois in 2003 (all inmates)
  • Gov. Richard Celeste in Ohio in 1991(8 inmates)
  • Gov. Toney Anaya in New Mexico in 1986 (all inmates)

Latest News & Updates »


End the Death Penalty in Your State (Map)

The state of Georgia has executed Troy Davis, despite serious concerns that he was wrongly convicted in 1989 of killing a police officer. This case makes clear that the death penalty system in the United States is broken beyond repair. It is arbitrary, discriminatory and comes at an enormous cost to taxpayers, and it must be ended.


The Case Against the Death Penalty (2011 Resource)

The American Civil Liberties Union believes the death penalty inherently violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment and the guarantees of due process of law and of equal protection under the law. Furthermore, we hold that the state should not arrogate unto itself the right to kill human beings – especially when it kills with premeditation and ceremony, in the name of the law or in the name of its people, or when it does so in an arbitrary and discriminatory fashion.

Clemency Letters

The ACLU has advocated for clemency on behalf of many death row inmates who faced execution despite tremendous injustices in their cases:

Statistics image