Snyder pardons, shortens sentences of 61 Michigan offenders

Sam Hamama (center), speaks about his ICE detention with his son Chris Hamama (left) and daughter Britany Hamama outside the Rosa Parks Federal Building in Detroit on Wednesday, December, 19, 2018.

The lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit seeking the release of some 1,400 detained Iraqi Americans is one of 61 offenders in Michigan that Gov. Rick Snyder has agreed to pardon or commute, his office announced Friday. 

In one of his last major moves before leaving office, the term-limited governor completed reviewing recommendations for commutations and pardons.

Among those on the list is Usama “Sam” Hamama of West Bloomfield, the lead plaintiff in the class action lawsuit Hamama v. Adducci, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. 

The case sought to end the detention of some 1,400 Iraqis nationally, including 114 initially from Metro Detroit, who had been swept up in Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids for deportation in June 2017.

Hamama, 56, came to the U.S. at age 11 and hasn't lived in Iraq for 40 years. He had 1988 convictions for felony assault, felony firearm and carrying a pistol in a motor vehicle. 

Hamama flashed an unloaded gun at another driver during a road confrontation and served two years in prison. At the time of the incident, the crime was not a deportable offense. Later, the government issued a removal order for him but did not try to send him back. 

He was arrested again in a raid on June 11, 2017, following President Donald Trump's executive order barring admission into the United States of nationals from seven countries, then including Iraq.

He had been detained for eight months in St. Clair County by ICE officials until posting a $100,000 bond in February. 

This isn't the first time he's applied for a pardon, but it's the first time he had hope. 

Hamama got word of his pardon late Friday from the governor's office and said it was "the ultimate Christmas gift."

"This gives me a 51 percent chance of staying in this country and at least I can explain to ICE, authorities and others that I'm a decent person and get another chance," Hamama told The Detroit News late Friday. "This means a fresh start for me... a true blessing and the fight is not over."

Snyder's authority to grant clemency is derived from Section 14 of Article V of the Michigan Constitution of 1963, “which provides that the governor shall have power to grant reprieves, commutations and pardons after convictions for all offenses, except cases of impeachment.”

He shall inform the legislature annually of each reprieve, commutation and pardon granted, stating reasons therefor, it adds. 

A commutation reduces a sentence but does not nullify the underlying conviction. A pardon erases a conviction.

Since Snyder took office in 2011, the Michigan Parole Board received more than 4,000 applications for pardons and commutations. Those applications the board determined as having merit were then sent to the governor’s office.

Snyder and his legal staff evaluated the documents along with the parole board and the state Department of Corrections. 

“I appreciate the great work done by the state Department of Corrections and by the Michigan Parole Board in the processing of the applications and in the recommendations they provided,” Snyder said in a statement Friday. “I understand the importance and impact my decisions have, which is why I took great time and care in making my decisions.”

Snyder's move gives the parole board jurisdiction over the cases. From here, the parole board will give the final say on when and if individuals serving terms will be released, said Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections.

If offenders are granted release, the soonest they would be walking out of prison would be sometime in early February, he said. 

The Detroit News reached out late Friday to the governor's office, requesting further details of the offenders receiving pardons or commutations from Snyder, but additional information was not provided. 

None of the individuals pardoned or with sentences commuted were clients for the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic or the WMU Cooley Law School Innocence Project, both which advocate on behalf of falsely convicted individuals.

The innocence project focuses on post-conviction DNA testing applications, while the innocence clinic focuses on non-DNA cases.

Though none of the Innocence Clinic’s applicants were chosen by Snyder, the long list of pardons and commutations were encouraging, said Marla Mitchell-Cichon, director of the WMU Cooley Law School Innocence Project. 

The  commutations and pardons, she said, are not unusual for an outgoing governor, especially for Snyder, who “has been a strong supporter of criminal justice reform.”

“It’s a very important responsibility,” Mitchell-Cichon said. “They would have had a significant amount of information about the individuals they were going to pardon or commute.”

Mark Osler, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minnesota and former assistant U.S. attorney in Detroit who studies sentencing and clemency, said Friday that Snyder “seems to have given this a fair amount of consideration." 

Some on the list, he added, likely provided they were “people who had good clean prison records who moved toward rehabilitation.”

In Hamama's class action suit, the ACLU had argued that if the detainees were repatriated to Iraq, they would face torture or death for their Christian faith and some for having served in the U.S. military.

After U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith granted two motions on Nov. 20 to release the roughly 100 detainees, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that he lacked authority to grant them bond hearings and release.

"I will never drop out of the class action suit. The suit explained to (Snyder) how desperate we are," he said. "I’ll keep fighting for human rights because the moment we stop, someone will try to take away what matters most, our freedoms."

The list of offenders affected by Snyder's decision also includes Abner Hines, who was sentenced in 1975 out of Wayne County to two life terms for first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit armed robbery, state records show.

Hines, who was in his 20s at the time, did not shoot a business owner like a companion but faced sentencing years before the Michigan Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the state’s practice of charging accessories to a murder with the same offense as the person who did the actual killing.

His attorney, Tim Doman, had initiated the commutation request. The Michigan Parole Board scheduled a public hearing in June to consider it, state corrections officials reported.

Doman had not received advance notice about the decision and said he was "pleasantly surprised" to learn about it Friday.

"As an attorney, I think it's hard to imagine a higher point in my career. I think that the fact he spent nearly 50 years behind bars is an injustice. We’re ecstatic Gov. Snyder has commuted his sentence."

Doman was planning to visit his client, whom he said has long had the support of the slaying victims' family in being released.

Hines' family also is planning a trip, says his sister, Verna Hines.

News of Snyder's decision comes a month after the Detroit native turned 65 and a day before the anniversary of his mother's death, Verna Hines said.

"We have supported him because he has done all the right things to turn his life around. I'm so very proud of him," she said in an interview with The Detroit News late Friday. "I've watched the transformation — how he turned into a scholar and mentor."

Snyder also moved to reduce the life sentence of Melissa Chapman, who has spent 30 years in prison for first-degree murder in Genesee County. She was present when a boyfriend killed another man in 1987 and admits that she helped him get rid of the body. But Chapman said her boyfriend had threatened to kill her.

Snyder commuted the sentences of others serving life terms for murder, including Demetrius Favors, 72, who has been in prison for 51 years.
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The Associated Press contributed