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Pardon, Remission, or Respite

Beriah Magoffin, Pardon


Bouvier (1856) “A pardon is an act of grace, proceeding from the power entrusted with the execution of the laws, which exempts the individual on whom it is bestowed, from the punishment the law inflicts for a crime he has committed.”


Executive clemency takes three broad forms in CWGK documents. Pardons remove both the conviction and the punishment (and restore voting rights, if rescinded). Remissions leave the conviction on the books but remove some or all of the punishment (taking time off of a prison sentence or exempting some or all of a fine). Respites do not lower the burden of punishment but give the convicted a temporary respite from collection of the fine or the beginning of a prison sentence.

Common prewar practice inherited by Beriah Magoffin favored respite for six months or a year in cases of hardship, with very rare outright pardon or remission in part or in whole. As social and economic conditions worsened during the war, though, governors became increasingly likely to pardon and remit fines and sentences. Bramlette (who presided over the worst of the irregular war in the state) was the most lenient of the governors, though he often remitted only portions of fines due to the state and let the portions due to the prosecuting Commonwealth’s Attorney and the court stand. As a prewar trial judge, Bramlette was reluctant to starve the judicial system of its operating budget, which largely came from those fines. By the end of the war, the executive office collected a fee for issuing a pardon as part of a broader set of wartime taxes on legal documents.

Official pardon, remission, and respite documents are rare in CWGK because they were sent from the executive office to the clerk of the relevant court. The governor’s office would keep a record of the action in the Executive Journal and filed with the petition and other supporting papers, but the official action documents scattered to every county in the Commonwealth.

This example of a remission was reissued and the original sent back to Governor Magoffin from the Anderson Circuit Court. Like commissions for offices, these were pre-printed in large numbers by the state printer and filled out as needed by the Secretary of State or his assistant.

Pardon, Remission, or Respite