Saturday, July 07, 2007

One Man’s Plea for Mercy, With a Recent Precedent in Mind

Frederick Lake, 54, waving his passport, with his son, Brandon, 9, in their home in Brooklyn.
Mr. Lake is facing deportation to Jamaica over a 1991 robbery conviction.

Published: July 7, 2007

If official mercy comes back into fashion, thanks to the clemency that President Bush granted this week to a former member of his administration who was headed to prison, it won’t be a moment too soon for Frederick Lake, a resident of East Flatbush, Brooklyn, for most of the last 20 years.

Mr. Lake has been to prison and finished his time; he was convicted in the 1989 robbery of a payroll company, and now faces deportation to Jamaica. From the moment of his arrest, he has insisted that he is not guilty. “I didn’t do this thing,” he said. “I wasn’t in the country.”

Now he has applied to Gov. Eliot Spitzer for a pardon, which is a legal cousin of clemency. A pardon erases the conviction from the records — and in Mr. Lake’s case would spare him from deportation — while clemency reduces a sentence, but does not eliminate the conviction.

Mr. Spitzer, in office only since January, is new to the exercise of official mercy. It has largely fallen into disuse, in New York and elsewhere.

Over the last 25 years, New York’s governors have granted fewer and fewer pardons or commutations of sentences. Perhaps they could find no one worthy of it, though the number of prisoners has grown fourfold. More likely, they feared TV ads saying that they were easy on criminals, or they fretted that one of those shown mercy would commit another crime.

The only person pardoned in New York since 1990 was the comedian Lenny Bruce, cleared in 2003 by Gov. George E. Pataki of “using foul language in public,” as state officials put it. At that point, Bruce was a safe bet to cause no further trouble for any governor: he had been dead for 37 years.

On Monday, President Bush granted clemency to I. Lewis Libby Jr., an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney who was convicted of lying to a grand jury — a single thread in the web of untrue stories that were spun to justify the Iraq war. At age 56, Mr. Libby was about to go to prison for 30 months, until Mr. Bush stepped in and declared that the sentence was “severe” and “excessive,” considering Mr. Libby’s public service and the hardship to his family. He is probably as safe a bet for Mr. Bush as Mr. Bruce was for George Pataki.

Mr. Lake, 54, is the father of children ages 8 and 9. He has heart disease and diabetes. Before going to prison for six years, he worked at night, cleaning aircraft at Kennedy Airport, and ran a car-repair business during the day.

In turning to Governor Spitzer for a pardon, Mr. Lake is asking not just for mercy, but also for the justice that he and his lawyers, John D. B. Lewis and Claudia Slovinsky, say they were unable to get in court.

“I’m here laying in the bed, thinking, when is I.N.S. going to come for me?” he said. “What about my children? My whole life is crumbling for something I never did.”

On May 18, 1989, a payroll company in Inwood, on Long Island, was robbed of $103,000 by a short, stocky man wearing an earring. Some months later, Mr. Lake passed along a money order that had been stolen in the robbery. At a trial in 1991, three people identified him as the stickup man, though he did not have a pierced ear and is close to 6 feet tall.

Mr. Lake, a legal resident of the United States, produced airline tickets and passenger manifests from Jamaica Air showing that “F. Lake” flew from Miami to Kingston, Jamaica, on May 12, 1989 — a week before the robbery — and then back to the United States on Sept. 29, 1989.

On his passport, the stamps matched the dates on the tickets.

“The truth is swimming on top of the water,” Mr. Lake said.

Prosecutors in Nassau County challenged his alibi by calling to the witness stand a Jamaican immigration official, who testified that he could not find a landing card filled out by Mr. Lake, a requirement for anyone entering the country. Later, a judicial inquiry in Jamaica found grave inaccuracies in the official’s testimony and said that if the jury relied on it, Mr. Lake had been the victim of a “serious miscarriage of justice.”

“Whenever I talk about this, it tears me up,” Mr. Lake said. “The medical care in Jamaica, that will be the finish of me. My son says, ‘Daddy, why are you crying? Are they going to put me in the casket with you?’ ”