Recent headlines have questioned the propriety of Mayor London Breed’s decision to write a letter to Governor Jerry Brown asking for clemency for her brother Napoleon Brown, who was convicted of robbery, carjacking and involuntary manslaughter. A letter for clemency is simply a request for mercy.
Breed’s decision to join both her mother in asking for her brother’s sentence commutation was not a politically expedient move, but this ordinary act – asking for mercy – was done to help her family, not advance her political career. Thus, this was a selfless act – to remember her family despite how far she has come. Rather than be attacked for seeking her brother’s clemency, she should be admired for having the courage to do so. Moreover, Breed openly discussed her brother’s lengthy incarceration when she campaigned for office.
All citizens, no matter their standing in society, can request clemency from the governor on behalf of a rehabilitated friend or loved one.
Even so, pardons and commutations are rare and only granted in exceptional cases, or to people who have completed their sentences. Clemency must be earned and the person seeking relief must show exemplary behavior. They must recognize the harm he or she has caused to society. Napoleon Brown has avowed to all of this in his commutation letter.
The decision to grant or deny clemency rests with the governor, but then goes to the Parole Board, which must investigate and vote in his favor, then it is passed along to the California Supreme Court, which most vote to uphold. It is an objective decision based on facts showing rehabilitation, remorse, and a desire to undertake acts of restorative justice. No part of the decision will or should be based on the fact that the petitioner’s sister is a mayor.
In Napoleon Brown’s case, it is unrefuted that he tried repeatedly to plead guilty and to accept the 20 years offered by the District Attorney, but that offer was contingent on the co-defendant also accepting a plea deal, which the co-defendant refused to do. Thus, Napoleon was forced to trial. After the jury convicted him of felony murder, the trial judge – a former career prosecutor – reduced his conviction to involuntary manslaughter because that was more consistent with the facts of the case. Still, he received 44 years – a virtual life sentence.
Though people are attacking Breed for allegedly using her position to get a special favor from the governor, a mayor does not surrender her family to political expediency once in office. Would we even want such a person to be our mayor?
At the end of our days, if our family is not by our side, then we leave this life with nothing, regardless of treaties we may have signed or legislation we may have passed.
The public’s interest in this matter should end with her explanation that she wrote the letter to request mercy for her brother. Mercy, if granted, will do more to continue Napoleon Brown’s rehabilitation than another 24 years in prison.
-San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi
Editors note: This article was altered at the request of the author to remove a reference to Breed’s grandmother.