US President Biden issues pardons for drug crimes, murder

The six year-end pardons signal shifting attitudes towards domestic violence and drug policy in the United States.

Biden waves from the steps of an airplane
US President Joe Biden boards Air Force One as he travels to St Croix in the US Virgin Islands [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

As United States President Joe Biden spends the final days of 2022 on vacation in the US Virgin Islands, the White House has issued five full pardons to individuals involved in drug- and alcohol-related crimes, as well as a sixth for a case of murder.

That case, involving a defendant named Beverly Ann Ibn-Tamas, is credited with helping to build an understanding of “battered woman syndrome”, the term for a psychological pattern similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) associated with survivors of domestic violence.

“Battered woman syndrome” has been increasingly used to explain why some survivors resort to violence to protect themselves in situations that might not otherwise meet the legal threshold for self-defence.

The syndrome, and concepts similar to it, have been invoked several high-profile abuse cases, including that of child sex-trafficking victim Cyntoia Brown and Florida mother Marissa Alexander.

‘The first significant steps toward judicial recognition’

Ibn-Tamas was 33 and pregnant at the time she shot and killed her husband, neurosurgeon Abdur Ramad Yussef Ibn-Tamas, on February 23, 1976. The incident took place in their Washington, DC home, which doubled as a medical office.

Prosecutors alleged the shooting was retaliation as Ibn-Tamas’s husband had threatened to throw her out of the house. But Ibn-Tamas consistently maintained that she feared for her life after suffering repeated physical and verbal abuse from her husband, before and during her pregnancy.

According to testimony described in the Washington Post, Ibn-Tamas told jurors that her husband dragged her upstairs after an argument, where he beat her with a hairbrush and gun from a dresser in their bedroom. He ordered her to leave the house, she said, and when she did not, he returned to the bedroom and started to assault her, kicking her in the stomach.

“I saw the pistol [on a dresser],” Ibn-Tamas was quoted in the Washington Post as saying. “He looked like he was going to pick it up. I picked it up and shot.”

She said she then tried to flee with her two-year-old daughter but shot again when she saw him appear on a landing near the stairs. She feared he might have gotten another gun from the house: “He was just like he was waiting for me. I just knew he had a gun.”

A statement from the White House on Friday explained that, “during her trial, the court refused to allow expert testimony regarding battered woman syndrome”. She was sentenced to one-to-five years in prison.

Ibn-Tamas appealed, with leading domestic violence expert Lenore Walker testifying on her behalf.

“Ms. Ibn-Tamas’s appeal marked one of the first significant steps toward judicial recognition of battered woman syndrome, and her case has been the subject of numerous academic studies,” the White House added.

The statement also said that Ibn-Tamas, now 80, went on to become a director of nursing at an Ohio-based healthcare business. Both her children grew up to earn advanced degrees.

Shifting attitudes on drug convictions

Friday’s pardons signal a continuing shift in US attitudes towards survivors of domestic violence as well as those convicted on drug charges.

Among those also pardoned was an army veteran from Dublin, California, who pleaded guilty to marijuana trafficking conspiracy at age 23, though “his involvement was limited to serving as a courier on five or six occasions”, the White House said.

Another recipient, a US Air Force serviceman who remains on active duty, was sentenced for consuming ecstasy and alcohol at age 19 while serving in the military.

A third man received a pardon for charges related to renting out a house that was then used to grow marijuana, though he “played no role in the grow-house conspiracy”.

Two more pardons were issued, one for a South Carolina man who, at age 18, was “involved a single illegal whiskey transaction” and another for an Arizona man who used a phone “to facilitate an unlawful cocaine transaction at age 22”.

The Biden administration has made addressing low-level drug arrests a priority in its clemency decisions.

Criminal justice groups have long pushed the Biden administration to address the long-term effects of the so-called War on Drugs, a US campaign that began in the 1970s to crack down on drug use. The result was a dramatic increase in arrests, which increased prison populations and disproportionately affected African American communities.

Biden issued the first pardons of his presidency in April this year, using two of the three initial pardons to address drug-related convictions.

He has since gone on to issue a sweeping pardon in October to those convicted on federal charges for “simple marijuana possession”, referring to marijuana owned for personal use, with no intent to distribute.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies