Criminal Justice Degrees Guide

History’s 9 Most Notorious Pardons

Being president comes with some really great perks. You don’t have to worry about paying rent, you never have to wait in the security line at the airport, and you get to let people off the hook for crimes they’ve committed. Many of these pardons granted by the president, or rulers of other countries, go largely unnoticed by the public, but some have captured our attention. Whether it’s because they righted an injustice or because we think the pardons themselves were an injustice, these nine pardons are some of the most well-known.

  1. Marc Rich

    On President Bill Clinton’s last day in office, he made the unpopular decision to grant Marc Rich a pardon. Rich was a commodities trader, and a good one at that. He was able to build his business and fortune, but may have gotten too greedy when he ignored the U.S. embargo on business with Iran. Rich bought crude oil from Iran and Iraq and sold it to U.S. companies. In 1983, he was indicted for illegal trading with Iran and tax evasion, but he was in Switzerland and refused to return, landing him on the FBI’s 10 Most-Wanted Fugitives List. Clinton pardoned him at the beginning of 2001, and many believe the decision stemmed from the amount of money Rich’s ex-wife had donated to the Clinton Library and Democratic Party.

  2. Caspar Weinberger

    As Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan, Caspar Weinberger was an important and well-respected man. He even received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and honorary British knighthood in his lifetime. But that didn’t save him from becoming embroiled in the messy Iran-Contra affair. The political scandal involved top officials secretly selling arms to Iran while an embargo was in place, supposedly because they believed it would prompt the release of hostages. Weinberger was indicted on perjury and obstruction of justice charges. President George H.W. Bush pardoned him (and five others) in 1992, before Weinberger’s trial could begin, leading some to believe the president might have something to hide.

  3. Blackbeard

    Yes, that Blackbeard. Edward Teach’s pirate name was Blackbeard and he has become something of a legend around the globe, perhaps the most famous pirate in history. British Blackbeard liked to take over and loot ships, especially those with valuable goods, like tobacco, sugar, and gold, and didn’t care if the ship was larger than what most pirates would go after. After hearing of the offer of a royal pardon for any pirates who turned themselves in by a certain date, Blackbeard accepted and settled down in North Carolina, a twist in the story no one expected. Of course, Blackbeard returned to pirating. A warrant was put out for his arrest and he was tricked and killed in 1718.

  4. Vietnam draft dodgers

    Opposition to the Vietnam War was fierce and loud, especially by those who were the right age to be drafted. One way young men found to avoid the draft, which is illegal, was to go abroad; about 100,000 Americans left the country in the ’60s and ’70s. Ninety percent of those went to Canada. These men would likely be charged and sent to prison if they returned to the U.S., but in 1977, President Jimmy Carter chose to give a blanket pardon to all draft dodgers.

  5. Gen. Robert E. Lee

    The famed Confederate general who lost the Civil War surrendered at Appomattox courthouse in 1865. President Andrew Johnson pardoned Confederate soldiers, but there were several groups of exceptions. These people, such as officers, had to send an application to the president asking to be pardoned. Lee sent his request and signed an Amnesty Oath to become a member of the Union again, and that should’ve been the end of his pardon. But no one ever processed his oath, so while he and everyone else acted as though he’d been pardoned, he wasn’t actually pardoned until 1868 when Johnson granted an unconditional pardon to everyone who participated in the rebellion. Even stranger, Lee wasn’t an official citizen until about 100 years later when a historian found his lost Amnesty Oath and President Gerald R. Ford officially made Lee a U.S. citizen again, though he’d been dead for a century.

  6. Peter Yarrow

    If you don’t know the band Peter, Paul and Mary, go check out the songs "Puff the Magic Dragon" and their famous version of "Leaving on a Jet Plane." Peter Yarrow, the Peter in the group, got a little carried away with a 14-year-old (read: underage) groupie and served three months in prison. Apparently President Carter was a fan of his, and Yarrow was given a pardon for the incident. If groupies aren’t fair game to musicians, is there anything left sacred in the world? Yarrow has since apologized for the indecent incident.

  7. Tokyo Rose

    Tokyo Rose is the name given by the Allied forces during World War II to female Japanese broadcasters, but has since been used mostly to refer to Iva Toguri. She was an American stuck in Japan when the war broke out and, along with many Japanese women, broadcast Japanese propaganda on the radio to the Allies. She went by the name Orphan Ann on the radio show. When the war ended, she was sent to prison in the U.S. for treason for her actions. Toguri always claimed she had been loyal to her country, refusing to give up her American citizenship and working with American POWs to make her broadcasts ridiculous. In the ’70s, these POWs came forward and supported Toguri’s story. She was pardoned by President Gerald Ford in 1977, perhaps a small victory for Japanese-Americans everywhere who had been mistreated during the war and its aftermath.

  8. Derek Bentley

    This pardon came at the end of a controversy that had been bubbling in the U.K. for 45 years. Derek Bentley was a British 16-year-old convicted of the murder of a police officer. His friend, Christopher Craig, also 16, was the one who physically committed the murder in 1952, but Bentley had been party to the murder and was hanged for his involvement. (Strangely, Craig served just 10 years in prison.) The public was very uncomfortable with Bentley’s execution, and his sister led a campaign to receive a posthumous pardon for him. Bentley received a partial royal pardon in 1993 and then a full one in 1998. The case made the British population question the merits of capital punishment and find some flaws in their justice system.

  9. Patty Hearst

    On the same day that President Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, he also granted a pardon to Patty Hearst, the heiress to newspaper giant Randolph Hearst. When she was 19, Hearst was kidnapped by a revolutionary group called the Symbionese Liberation Army. She eventually joined their group and performed a bank robbery with them. She was arrested in 1975, about a year and a half after her kidnapping, and sentenced to 35 years for the crime, though she only ended up serving 22 months. Hearst is one of the most well-known cases of Stockholm Syndrome, the psychological experience of having empathy and fondness for your captors. In light of this and all she’d been through, Clinton gave her a pardon.