In the modern political climate — and especially since Maurice Clemmons killed four Lakewood police officers — a governor granting clemency to a prison inmate or former felon is rare.

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On a warm May day in 1988, two plainclothes officers in Yakima searched the home Jose Dominguez shared with other immigrant farmworkers. They looked once, then twice, on a kitchen shelf. The third time, they found a dime bag of cocaine and arrested Dominguez.

An orphan from Mexico, Dominguez met his attorney for the first time in court and was advised to plead guilty, with a promise that he’d go free. Instead, he was deported.

In the decades since, he’s maintained he never had or used drugs. He married a U.S. citizen and returned legally to Yakima, but had trouble getting a work permit because of the conviction.

This month, he found a sympathetic but unlikely ear: Gov. Chris Gregoire. Last week, she granted Dominguez what her general counsel called an “extremely rare” pardon.

It was not an understatement.

Gregoire, already stringent with her powers of pardon and commutation, had not granted clemency since the shooting of four Lakewood police officers triggered a nationwide political backlash against such acts of mercy. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had let Clemmons out of prison with a commutation in 2000.

Before Dominguez’s pardon, Gregoire’s previous act of clemency occurred in October, a month before the Clemmons’ rampage.

Meanwhile, Gregoire’s five-member Clemency and Pardons Board continues vetting and sending her recommendations. Gregoire still has on her desk a backlog of 14 other petitions with unanimous backing from the board.

Most already released

Some of them, like in Clemmons’ case, are prison inmates hoping for a commutation to be let out early. But most are people like Dominguez, released from prison years — even decades — ago and seeking pardons to ease problems with employment or immigration.

In the modern political climate, governors are held accountable when a person granted clemency goes on to commit more crimes. That minimizes the political distinction between pardon and commutation, and skews the political calculus — all risk, with little reward from voters for appearing merciful.

Proponents of clemency bemoan that fact, but Clemmons is the new case study for its consequences.

Even before the Lakewood tragedy, Gregoire, a former prosecutor, was unusually cautious. She has granted clemency 26 times in 53 months, including two commutations to free inmates from prison.

Stevan Dozier, the last inmate freed by Gregoire, fears the Clemmons case will make the governor even more cautious.

Sentenced to life in prison under the “three strikes” law, Dozier won a rare commutation in May 2009 with the support of King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg.

Satterberg since has supported clemency for three other “three strikes” offenders. Their petitions are among those sitting on Gregoire’s desk.

“As a Christian society, we believe that all human souls are redeemable,” said Dozier, currently working as a mentor for at-risk youth. “The light of hope should not be turned off.”

By the numbers

The concept of clemency dates to Babylonian times, acting as a safety valve for criminal sentences that kings believed were unjust, or a means to show their power to be merciful. Without clemency, Alexander Hamilton wrote, “justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel.”

The Washington state Constitution gives governors broad discretion, requiring only they find “extraordinary circumstances.” For help — and political cover — an independent five-member board issues recommendations after hearing testimony.

Clemency gradually has fallen out of favor. In the 1930s and ’40s, for example, 11 death sentences were commuted, an act that today would be extraordinary. The reason most often given, according to records from the Washington State Archives: “complete rehabilitation.”

Since 1988, when Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign was damaged by the furlough he granted to Willie Horton, clemency has been politically toxic for Democrats.

Gov. Mike Lowry from 1993 to 1997 commuted nine sentences — six for seriously ill or dying inmates — and pardoned one woman. Gov. Gary Locke, the most active recent governor, granted 66 pardons and commutations from 1997 to 2005. More than half were granted after Locke decided he would not run for re-election in mid-2003. Gregoire’s 26 acts of clemency mostly have been granted to people who have lived crime-free for years and had difficulty getting a professional license.

“Do I worry about them? Absolutely,” Gregoire said. “There’s no science to this. There are no guarantees. I’ve searched my soul, and I fundamentally believe in rehabilitation. But I’m pretty strict about it. I want to really believe it.”

The process moves too slowly for Sen. Adam Kline, a Seattle Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“If the safety valve is clemency, and clemency is dependent on the political situation, then what kind of system do we have?” he said. “Do they depend on not having situations like [the Lakewood police deaths]? Justice has been shut off for a year. What the hell kind of system is that?”

Gregoire also appears to have a more restrictive view of clemency than the Clemency and Pardons Board. At least seven times, she has denied a petition that won a positive recommendation from the five-member board — which includes two law-enforcement officials and the widow of slain Seattle police Officer Antonio Terry.

And that was before the Clemmons case.

In Washington state, Clemmons probably wouldn’t even have received a hearing before the board because of an abysmal disciplinary record in prison.

The Willie Horton lesson

Dan Kobil, a law professor in Ohio who studies clemency, said governors nationwide were beginning to grant more clemency before the Lakewood murders, in part to cut expensive prison populations.

If the Clemmons case proves to be “another Willie Horton, it will set back clemency another 20 years,” he said.

Horton, a convicted killer who did not return from furlough, raped a woman and assaulted her fiancé.

Clemmons was among the 1,033 clemency petitions approved by Huckabee in his 10 years in office. After the murders, pundits on the political left and right declared his presidential aspirations finished.

Gregoire said the Clemmons case had no impact on her decisions. “Huckabee and I couldn’t be further apart on this,” she said. The reason for the nine-month gap between pardons, she said, was a change in the staff that processed the petitions.

Among the 14 petitions unanimously supported by the board and pending before Gregoire, four have waited a year. Because the governor usually waits several months after receiving the board’s recommendation, those approved before the Lakewood tragedy are caught in its aftermath.

Dominguez’s petition, for example, was approved by the board in September 2008.

Juan Garcia is in a similar situation. A Mexican immigrant, he was convicted of simple drug possession in King County in 1990 and remained crime-free since. He married, ran a landscaping business in Seattle and later became an animal-control officer in Browning, Mont., where his wife is earning her doctorate.

But his felony popped up when he applied for permanent residency based on his marriage to a U.S. citizen. Rather than be deported forcibly, he voluntarily left his wife behind in August 2008 and returned to La Paz, Mexico. They haven’t seen each other since.

A pardon from Gregoire is his only shot for a return.

“When I saw what happened in Lakewood, I thought, ‘Oh God, don’t let this affect Juan,’ ” said his wife, Cheri Kicking Woman. “I can tell you, he wouldn’t hurt anyone.”

Three-strike cases

Gregoire’s most political risky act of clemency came in May 2009, when she freed Dozier, a “three strikes” offender, from a life sentence.

Three other “three strikers” soon asked for commutations, as advocates for clemency sensed the politics of those cases had shifted. Those cases are pending.

Satterberg, the King County prosecutor, has supported the clemency requests of all four of those “three strikes” cases.

He said he looked for cases of genuine reform and for instances in which his office no longer would seek a life sentence if the cases were brought to them today.

He said he defers to Gregoire on clemency, but believes “taking a chance on an inmate who has done everything they can shows that life can be redeemed.”

“It shows life has value, and it is a way to reach kids who are at risk of committing crime and violence,” he said.

Most recently, he supported Mary London, whose commutation request was unanimously supported by the Clemency and Pardons Board.

She was given a life sentence in 1995. Her third-strike offense was a robbery that netted her $6 and two radios. At the time, she was a transient drug addict diagnosed with post-traumatic shock and depression. She repeatedly had been beaten over the head with a hammer by an ex-boyfriend and had been raped as a teenager by her stepfather.

She had a convincing religious conversion over the past 15 years in prison, reconciled with an estranged daughter, apologized to her victims and has been a model prison worker. The judge who sentenced her, George Finkle, recently met with London and found her to have a “gracious and gentle demeanor,” he said during a board hearing in March.

Her attorney, Jeff Ellis, hopes Gregoire will begin granting clemency cases this summer.

“It has always seemed clear to me that Washington’s clemency process is excruciatingly careful,” Ellis said. “It moves very slowly.”

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or