When Netflix released the sensational 10+ hour documentary Making a Murderer at the end of December, it launched a national conversation about the corrupt and impartial justice system that exists in many parts of the United States.
If you haven’t watched it yet, we won’t give away too many details — only that it casts an incredible doubt on whether the convictions of Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey for the murder of Teresa Halback were correct and just. Enough people were convinced that the two were framed to start a petition on WhiteHouse.gov, the official webpage of the President. Over 340,000 people have signed the petition calling for President Obama to give Avery and Dassey a full presidential pardon.
There’s just one problem — he legally can’t. Here is the response from WhiteHouse.gov (emphasis theirs)
Thank you for signing a We the People petition on the Teresa Halbach murder case, currently featured on the “Making a Murderer” documentary series. We appreciate your interest in this case.
To best respond to your petition, we should go over what exactly presidential pardoning power entails.
The U.S. Constitution grants the power of clemency to the President:
“The President … shall have Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States.”
This clemency authority empowers the President to exercise leniency towards persons who have committed federal crimes. Under the Constitution, only federal criminal convictions, such as those adjudicated in the United States District Courts, may be pardoned by the President. In addition, the President’s pardon power extends to convictions adjudicated in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia and military court-martial proceedings. However, the President cannot pardon a state criminal offense.
Since Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey are both state prisoners, the President cannot pardon them. A pardon in this case would need to be issued at the state level by the appropriate authorities.
Basically, it’s up to Wisconsin state government to decide these things. State governor Scott Walker is fairly hard right-wing Republican, having previously spoken out against same-sex marriage and taking a hard stance on immigration, so it seems unlikely he would have any interest in appearing soft on convicted criminals.
Avery and Dassey both remain incarcerated.