During his final days in office, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin issued more than 400 clemency decisions in cases spanning the criminal justice spectrum, including commuting the sentences of two death row prisoners, Gregory Wilson and Leif Halvorsen. Mr. Wilson was sentenced to death in 1987. At trial, the court had difficulty securing an attorney for Mr. Wilson, even posting a sign outside the courtroom door begging for assistance. The attorneys who eventually represented Mr. Wilson did so despite having no capital case experience. One of the two attorneys had never even tried a felony, and the other had no office and listed the number of a local tavern on his business cards. At trial, the attorneys questioned no witnesses and essentially mounted no defense. Despite these shocking facts, courts repeatedly upheld Mr. Wilson’s conviction and death sentence on appeal, while his co-defendant, who admitted to killing the victim herself, was eventually released from prison. Governor Bevin’s order noted that “to say that [Mr. Wilson’s] legal defense was inadequate would be the understatement of the year.” His words echoed a federal judge who previously reviewed the case and said that Mr. Wilson’s case was “one of the worst examples” he had ever seen of “the unfairness and abysmal lawyering that pervade capital trials.”
Leif Halvorsen was convicted and sentenced to death for his role in a drug-fueled shooting rampage committed with a co-defendant in 1983. According to his clemency petition, Mr. Halvorsen’s life began to unravel after his marriage ended. Despite seeking treatment for drug addiction, Mr. Halvorsen continually relapsed, eventually culminating in the shooting deaths of the victims while under the influence of multiple substances. In the three decades since his conviction and death sentence, however, Mr. Halvorsen transformed his life in prison. While in prison he has earned two college degrees and serves as an advisor to young prison inmates who need guidance. He has repeatedly voiced remorse and deep regret for his crime. Prison officials, faith leaders, and others joined in support of his clemency petition. In commuting his sentence, Governor Bevin wrote that “Leif has a powerful voice that needs to be heard by more people.” Attorneys for both prisoners celebrated the outcomes, especially praising Governor Bevin for commuting both Mr. Wilson’s and Mr. Halvorsen’s sentences to life with the possibility of parole.