Editor’s Note: After the publication of this article, the White House announced on Tuesday that Oscar Lopez-Rivera’s sentence would be commuted.
As Barack Obama begins the last week of his presidency, speculation about potential candidates for an eleventh-hour presidential pardon has inevitably heated up. And one name that has been bandied about should send a particularly unpleasant chill down the spines of law-abiding Americans everywhere: Oscar Lopez-Rivera.
Lopez-Rivera has been in federal prison since 1981, after he was convicted of seditious conspiracy and arms trafficking in connection with his leadership of the FALN, the notorious left-wing terrorist group that perpetrated more than 130 attacks on U.S. soil from the mid 1970s through the mid 1980s, killing six and wounding many more. Most members of the FALN, which purported to fight for Puerto Rican independence but maintained deep ties to Fidel Castro’s Cuba, were long ago captured and imprisoned, and many of them have already served their time and been released. But Lopez-Rivera remains unrepentant about his crimes, and he’s hardly been a model prisoner: In one of two failed attempts to escape, he conspired with others inside and outside his prison to kill his way to freedom, attempting to procure grenades, rifles, plastic explosives, bulletproof vests, blasting caps, and armor-piercing bullets. After the FBI thwarted this plan, another 15 years was added to Lopez’s original 55-year sentence.
Then, in 1999, President Bill Clinton stunned the world by offering clemency to twelve FALN members, including Lopez, without notifying the families of the FALN’s victims beforehand. Eric Holder, at the time a deputy attorney general in Clinton’s Justice Department, had been trying to free the imprisoned radicals for two years. When then-first lady Hillary Clinton’s staff thought freeing the terrorists might help her pick up the significant Puerto Rican voting bloc in her N.Y. Senate race, they reached out to Holder for an assist. Holder came up with a statement the terrorists would have to sign expressing remorse for their actions, Mrs. Clinton met with an advocate for the group who passed along documents to assist with the clemency, she gave the documents to her husband, and just two days later President Clinton made the surprise announcement.
The plan quickly began to implode when both branches of Congress overwhelmingly condemned it and the administration failed to get all twelve terrorists to agree to its conditions. As a 30-day deadline to accept the offer approached, eleven of the twelve prisoners signed on, walking free as a stunned nation watched. Lopez-Rivera was the only prisoner to decline the administration’s offer.
By 2010, however, he decided he had served long enough, and petitioned for release with the U.S. Parole Commission. In a January 2011 hearing at the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., the families of FALN victims showed up seeking any sign that Lopez-Rivera was sorry for his group’s actions, but none was forthcoming. The parole examiner ruled that Lopez-Rivera would remain in prison until at least 2023. The full commission, which was made up entirely of Democratic presidential appointees, upheld the examiner’s decision the following month, ruling that Lopez-Rivera had boasted of his leadership role before the failed escape attempt from Leavenworth federal prison.
With Obama’s time in office about to end, efforts to have him order that Lopez be freed are being renewed. In recent days, the outgoing president has ordered commutations of more than 1,000 inmates, many of whom were convicted of drug-related crimes or weapons charges. Besides Lopez-Rivera, other high-profile prisoners, including Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl and Chelsea Manning, noted for her involvement with WikiLeaks, are reportedly being considered for release.
Meanwhile, efforts to keep Lopez-Rivera incarcerated continue, spearheaded by victims’ families and retired law-enforcement officers. For them, his release would be an injustice and an affront to the memories of those who were killed and those who were left behind by the FALN. He founded the group and trained those who carried out its attacks, and he has never shown remorse for the horror, death, and pain those attacks caused. It is only right that he should serve out the full length of his sentence.