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Who Exactly Can the President Pardon?

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Since the new Netflix documentary Making a Murderer premiered on December 18, more than 100,000 people have signed a WhiteHouse.gov petition urging President Obama to pardon the series' subjects, Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey, who were convicted in 2007 for the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach. The hit series raised serious questions not just about how the police department handled the case—Avery, who had spent 18 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, was suing Wisconsin's Manitowoc County for $36 million at the time of his arrest for Halbach's murder and insisted he had been framed—but also about how our justice system works. 

Avery received a life sentence without the possibility of parole; Dassey, who was 17 at the time of his conviction, was also given a life sentence, though he'll be eligible for parole in 2048.

“There is clear evidence that the Manitowoc County sheriff's department used improper methods to convict both Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey,” the body of the petition states, adding, “the justice system embarrassingly failed both men, completely ruining their entire lives.”

As the White House is required to respond to any petition with more than 100,000 signatures, they issued the following statement, explaining that the Constitution does not grant the President power to pardon men and women convicted under state law:

“Under the Constitution, only federal criminal convictions, such as those adjudicated in the United States District Courts, may be pardoned by the President … However, the President cannot pardon a state criminal offense.

Since Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey are both state prisoners, the President cannot pardon them. A pardon in this case would need to be issued at the state level by the appropriate authorities.”

The full language of the Constitution (Article 2, Section 2, Clause 1) reads:

"The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment."

Tens of thousands of federal prisoners have been pardoned, granted clemency, or had their sentences commuted. George Washington pardoned the instigators of the Whiskey Rebellion. Andrew Johnson pardoned a slew of Confederate soldiers after the Civil War, as did Ulysses S. Grant (who gave amnesty to Confederate leaders). Gerald Ford granted a full, unconditional pardon to Richard Nixon just one month after Nixon resigned in 1974, saving the former president from any and all imminent indictments. Only two presidents failed to give a single pardon: William Henry Harrison and James Garfield, who both died early in their first terms and didn’t get the chance.

In 1830, convicted robber George Wilson was pardoned by President Andrew Jackson. Wilson refused the pardon, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. He was permitted refusal, and eventually hanged for his crimes. However, a Supreme Court decision in 1927 reversed that original decision, ruling that a pardon is "not a private act of grace from an individual happening to possess power,” but rather “the determination of the ultimate authority that the public welfare will be better served by inflicting less than what the judgment fixed." Therefore, no take-backs.

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Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
AFP, Getty Images
AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

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Big Questions
How Are Rooms Cleaned at an Ice Hotel?

Cleaning rooms at Sweden’s famous ICEHOTEL is arguably less involved than your typical hotel. The bed, for example, does not have traditional sheets. Instead, it’s essentially an air mattress topped with reindeer fur, which sits on top of a custom-made wooden palette that has a minimum of 60 centimeters of airspace below. On top of those reindeer hides is a sleeping bag, and inside that sleeping bag is a sleep sack. And while it’s always 20ºF inside the room, once guests wrap themselves up for the night, it can get cozy.

And, if they’re wearing too many layers, it can get quite sweaty, too.

“The sleep sack gets washed every day, I promise you that. I know it for a fact because I love to walk behind the laundry, because it’s so warm back there," James McClean, one of the few Americans—if not the only—who have worked at Sweden's ICEHOTEL, tells Mental Floss. (He worked on the construction and maintenance crew for several years.)

There isn’t much else to clean in most guest rooms. The bathrooms and showers are elsewhere in the hotel, and most guests only spend their sleeping hours in the space. But there is the occasional accident—like other hotels, some bodily fluids end up where they shouldn’t be. People puke or get too lazy to walk to the communal restrooms. Unlike other hotels, these bodily fluids, well, they freeze.

“You can only imagine the types of bodily fluids that get, I guess, excreted … or expelled … or purged onto the walls,” McClean says. “At least once a week there’s a yellow stain or a spilled glass of wine or cranberry juice … and it’s not what you want to see splattered everywhere.” Housekeeping fixes these unsightly splotches with an ice pick and shovel, re-patching it with fresh snow from outside.

Every room has a 4-inch vent drilled into the icy wall, which helps prevent CO2 from escalating to harmful levels. Maintenance checks the holes daily to ensure these vents are not plugged with snow. Their tool of choice for clearing the pathway is, according to McClean, “basically a toilet brush on a stick.”

When maintenance isn’t busy unstuffing snow from that vent hole, they’re busy piping snow through it. Every couple days, the floor of each room receives a new coat of fluffy snow, which is piped through the vent and leveled with a garden rake.

“It’s the equivalent of vacuuming the carpet,” McClean says.

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