Article 18 of the Constitution of 1777 authorized the governor, at his discretion, to grant pardons and reprieves, except in capital cases (murder and treason). This power was continued by the second (1821), third (1846), and fourth (1894) State constitutions. The governor's power to grant commutations of sentence was added by the Constitution of 1846. Today the governor's power to grant clemency and pardons is stated in Art. 4, Sect. 4, of the New York State Constitution. The power to grant pardons in capital cases was reserved to the Legislature by the Constitution of 1777. In cases of murder this power was transferred to the governor by the Constitution of 1821. The Constitution continues to reserve to the Legislature the power to pardon persons convicted of treason (though the present Penal Law specifies no penalty for treason).
The Executive Law requires the Governor to maintain "registers containing classified statements of all applications for pardon, commutation or other executive clemency and of his action thereon," and to maintain "files of all official records upon which applications for executive clemency are founded." Records of applications for and grants of executive clemency are found in various series of registers and filed papers kept by the Executive Chamber. Additional records of grants of executive clemency were created by the Secretary of State's Office, and later transferred to the State Archives.
Archival documentation of executive clemency commences in the late eighteenth century and continues in one format or another to the present. Most of the records date from the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the number of applications for, and grants of, executive clemency increased greatly. The number of grants of clemency declined after indeterminate (variable-length) sentences were introduced for juveniles (1877) and for all first-time felony offenders (1901).
The parole system was developed in part to review applications by prisoners for executive clemency. A Board of Commissioners for Paroled Prisoners was established in each prison in 1889; these boards were succeeded by the statewide Board of Commissioners for Paroled Prisoners, organized in 1901, the Board of Parole for State Prisons, 1908, and the present Division of Parole, 1926.
The principal record series in the State Archives relating to executive clemency and pardons are the following:
Secretary of State's Office
B1201 Name Index to Executive Pardons, Respites, Commutations, Restorations of Citizenship and Certificates of Good Conduct, 1799-1987 (4 c.f.)
This series is a card index to names of persons receiving grants of executive clemency in record series described in more detail below: B0042 (pardons), B0048 (respites and commutations), B0046 (restorations of citizenship), and 13253 (all types of clemency grants, post-1931).
Access: The index is in three chronological sections 1799-1930, 1931-1982, and 1983-1987.
B0042 Executive Pardons, 1799-1846, 1856-1931 (10 vols.); microfilm available for years 1799-1806 and 1825-34
This series is a record of pardons granted by the governor. Each entry gives the name of the person pardoned, the court where convicted, the crime, the sentence, and the date of pardon. Some of the entries also state the special conditions under which the pardon was granted.
Access: Indexed in series B1201 (above). All the individual volumes (except the one for 1870-1924) contain name indexes. Pardons starting 1931 are recorded in series 13253, below.
B0049 Executive Orders for Commutations, Pardons, Restorations, and Respites, 1840-1920, 1924-1929 (28 vols.) Restricted in part.
These orders (termed "requests") direct the Secretary of State to issue formal pardons, commutations of sentence, respites (stays of execution for condemned persons), and restorations (orders restoring pardoned convicts to full rights of citizenship). The orders contain name of convict, crime, place of trial, date of sentence, place of imprisonment, etc. Commutations may state special conditions of the commutation of sentence.
Access and restrictions: The volumes do not contain name indexes. Most of the volumes are in poor condition; use and photocopying are restricted. The first volume contains some applications for grants of clemency or pardon for the years 1840-42, when William H. Seward was governor; these applications are restricted. The Seward Papers at the University of Rochester Library contain many additional documents relating to clemency applications during the period 1839-42. See Catherine D. Hayes, comp., "Register of the William Henry Seward Papers" (1963) (copy available in State Library).
B0048 Respites and Commutations, 1854-1931 (1 c.f.)
These books contain record copies of respites (reprieves for persons sentenced to death and respites of sentences for persons convicted of non-capital crimes); and of commutations of sentence (commutation of death sentences or reduction in the length of other criminal sentences).
Access: Indexed in series B1201 (above). Some of the volumes contain name indexes. For respites and commutations granted starting 1931, see series 13253, below.
B0046 Executive Restoration of Citizenship Rights, 1869-1931 (8 vols.)
Restorations of citizenship rights are granted by the governor at his discretion. Entries give convict's name, crime, sentence, prison, and date of restoration. Restorations of citizenship for 1856-1868 are recorded in series B0042, above. For restorations granted starting 1931, see series 13253, below.
Access: Indexed in series B1201 (above). Each volume has a name index.
13253 Executive Pardons, Respites, Commutations, Restorations of Citizenship, and Certificates, 1931-1993 (4.6 c.f.)
This series records the Governor's grants of executive clemency and pardon formerly recorded separately in series B0042 (pardons), B0048 (respites and commutations), and B0046 (restorations of citizenship), described above.
Access: Indexed in series B1201 (above).
B0043 Lists of Convicts Discharged by Expiration of Sentence or Pardon, ca. 1819-1837, 1848-1853, 1873, 1876, 1880-1891 (2 c.f.) Restricted fragile.
These printed reports are folio sheets or booklets. They list convicts discharged from State prisons, either by expiration of sentence or pardon, during the previous year. The names are arranged by prison (State Prison in New York City, also known as "Newgate"; Auburn; Mount Pleasant, later called Sing Sing; and Clinton). The reports state the convict's name and date of discharge, and provide summary data on the individual's crime, conviction, sentence, and personal characteristics.
Access and restrictions: These reports are fragile; use is restricted. This set is incomplete. The State Library does not hold copies of these reports. A set for the years 1819-1891 is available at the Department of Manuscripts & University Archives, Cornell University Libraries (Collection #3848). These lists not only provide the names of and summary data about individuals who were pardoned, but also constitute a summary record of inmates of state prisons during most of the nineteenth century.
Following are abbreviated descriptions of records from the Governor's office relating to executive clemency. These records were received by the State Library several decades ago and were transferred to the State Archives when it opened in 1978. For more detailed information on records in the State Archives relating to executive clemency, see Guide to Records of the Governor's Office in the New York State Archives (Albany: 1995), pp. 50-57.
A3189 Letter Book of Official Correspondence and Proclamations, 1787-1795, 1802-1804 (1 vol.)
This register of official letters and other documents was maintained by Governor George Clinton. It includes proclamations delaying the execution of sentences of death, as well as letters transmitting to the Legislature applications for clemency for persons convicted of capital crimes.
Access: There is a calendar of documents found in this register.
A0622 Ledgers of Governors' Actions and Decisions, 1856-1906 (5 vols.)
The "ledgers" contain data on official actions of the Governor, organized under type of action, then chronologically. Each volume contains a section listing applications granted or denied for pardons, commutations, and restorations of citizenship. Entries give the name of convict, date and term of sentence, crime, county, and prison. The data in these "ledgers" was derived from two other record series maintained in the Executive Chamber: the Governor's "journals" (contains daily entries under various headings, 1859-1916) [series A0607] and "blotters" (contains rough entries or pasted-in documents, 1859-1938) [series A0608].
Access: The entries are chronological and may serve as a scannable listing of names of persons applying for clemency or pardon.
A0626 Executive Clemency Application Status Ledgers, 1883-1899 (5 vols.); A0629 Executive Clemency and Pardon Application Ledgers and Correspondence, 1849-1903 (40 vols.) Restricted in part.
These two series of registers contain chronological entries of applications or petitions for clemency or pardon. Data in the registers varies, but generally includes name of convict; crime and sentence; date, place, and court of conviction; checklist of documents received in relation to the application; and final disposition of application. The registers contain summary data on applications for clemency or pardon. The data could be used for historical or sociological studies of the clemency process; for example, the number, character, and the rate of approval of applications, by type of crime or identity of defendant (e.g. men or women). The ledger covering the Civil War period identifies numerous convicts who were pardoned or released from prison by order of the governor, so that they could enlist in the U.S. Army.
Access and Restrictions: Some of the volumes contain name indexes, but there is no over-all index. Some volumes in series A0629 contain outgoing correspondence from the Governor's office; access to this correspondence is restricted under the same conditions as apply to the application files (series A0597, below).
A0597 Executive Clemency and Pardon Case Files, ca. 1860-1926 (133 cu. ft.). Restricted.
Files typically contain petitions or applications for clemency, from convicts or from family or friends; other correspondence supporting or opposing the application (includes letters from judges, prosecutors, and prison officials); copies of indictments and appeal papers (include some records on appeal). Occasionally found in the file are the Governor's public statement of grant of clemency or pardon; and the convict's acceptance of any conditions attached to the grant of clemency. While most applications were rejected, the files contain much information on what were presented as mitigating circumstances that made the convict deserving of clemency or pardon. This information could provide significant data for historical and sociological studies of crime, criminals, prisons, and public sentiment about convicts. The files seem to contain little direct evidence of a governor's thinking in regard to clemency applications. More recent application files are held by the Division of Parole.
Access and Restrictions. The files are not indexed and are partly disarranged. Registers or ledgers of applications (series A0626 and A0629, above) can help in locating individual files or categories of cases. The files are in fair to poor physical condition (folders and envelopes are severely deteriorated). These files were transferred to the State Library in 1947, and from there to the State Archives in 1978. However, access to the files is restricted; the records "will be made available only in the discretion of the Governor" (information from Division of Parole). Persons wishing to use the files for research are referred to the Executive Clemency Bureau, New York State Division of Parole.
Messages of the Governors
The Governor is required by the Constitution and by statute to make an annual report to the Legislature on grants of commutation, pardon, or reprieve. The Governors' messages concerning grants of clemency or pardon have been printed in the annual Public Papers of the Governor, which commenced in the 1860s. The messages are also published separately. Between the 1850s and the 1970s the messages were also included in the annual series of Senate or Assembly Documents (through 1918) or Legislative Documents (1919-1976). These published documents are available in the New York State Library and in other major research libraries holding collections of New York State government documents.