Rethinking the Timing of Capital Clemency

This Article reviews every capital clemency over the last four decades. It demonstrates that in the majority of cases, the reason for commutation was known at the conclusion of direct appeals—years or even decades before the habeas process ended. Yet when governors or pardon boards actually commuted the death sentences, they typically waited until the eve of execution, with only days or hours to spare. Leaving clemency until the last minute sometimes leads to many years of unnecessary state and federal habeas corpus litigation, and this Article documents nearly 300 years of wasted habeas corpus review. Additionally, last-minute commutations harm the victims’ families by delaying closure for years. And reserving clemency determinations for the very end of the process creates an information cascade that makes it harder for governors to grant clemency in meritorious cases. This Article therefore argues for a threshold clemency determination in capital cases at the conclusion of direct review, before any state or federal habeas litigation has begun.