In the 1970s and 1980s, a Puerto Rican communist organization conducted a campaign of terror in New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. The organization was the FALN, which is the Spanish acronym for the Armed Forces of National Liberation. The FALN was trained by Cuban intelligence, and the organization’s goal was to sever the ties between the United States and Puerto Rico and turn the island into another Cuba. To achieve its goal, the FALN conducted armed robberies and planted dozens of bombs. Those bombs killed five people, injured scores of people, and caused millions of dollars of property damage.
One of the national leaders of this terrorist organization was Oscar Lopez Rivera. Among other things, he recruited terrorists, trained them in bomb making, sabotage, and guerilla warfare, and set up safe houses and bomb factories for the FALN. After several years on the run, he was finally captured in 1981. At his trial, he claimed to be a political prisoner and largely refused to take part in his trial. The trial judge, Thomas McMillen, called him “incorrigible” and an “unrehabilitated revolutionary” and sentenced him to 55 years in prison.
Lopez has been far from a model prisoner. For example, Lopez boasted to other inmates about his role in the FALN, encouraged fellow inmates to commit acts of violence, and formulated two escape plans. Both of his plans for escape involved guns, and the second plot involved grenades, rockets, and plastic explosives. If successful, he planned to return to his former life of terrorism. Unfortunately for him, his escape plots were foiled, and he was sentenced to an additional 15 years behind bars. An official from the Bureau of Prisons subsequently told a Congressional committee that Lopez was regarded as one of the most dangerous criminals in the entire federal prison system. Lopez’s probation officer found his level of remorse to be “minimal, if not non-existent.” And in 1998, Lopez told a Puerto Rican newspaper, “I have no regrets for what I’ve done…”
For political reasons, the Clinton Administration considered offering Lopez and some of his fellow terrorists clemency in the 1990s. There was strong opposition to granting them clemency, however. President Clinton’s first Pardon Attorney (the Justice Department official responsible for vetting petitions for clemency) opposed clemency. The US Attorneys from two districts that prosecuted the FALN terrorists opposed clemency. Judge McMillen opposed clemency. The FBI Director opposed clemency. Senator Chuck Schumer opposed clemency. Even Puerto Rico’s lone representative in Congress, a Democrat, opposed clemency. In the end, President Clinton disregarded these objections and offered 12 FALN members, including Lopez, clemency. Lopez rejected the offer, which would have required him to renounce violence, and chose to remain in prison. All of the other FALN terrorists accepted the offer of clemency.
Just days after the terrorists accepted their clemency offers, Congress demonstrated its displeasure by voting overwhelmingly for resolutions condemning the offers. The House vote was 311-41, with 72 voting “present”; the Senate vote was 95-2. Criticism of the clemency offers was so intense that even Hillary Clinton, who was gearing up to run for a U.S. Senate seat at the time, publicly disagreed with her husband’s decision.
In 2011, Lopez was considered for parole; he had previously refused to apply. The son of a man killed by an FALN bomb attended the parole board hearing hoping to hear an apology from Lopez, but Lopez offered no apology. Unsurprisingly, the hearing examiner recommended that Lopez be denied parole, and the parole board followed the recommendation. Just last year, Lopez told NPR that if he walks out of prison one day, he’ll walk out with his head high.
Last week, former President Obama commuted Lopez’s sentence allowing him to leave prison this May. After decades in prison — giving Lopez ample opportunity to reflect on his crimes and the FALN’s innocent victims — he has remained unrepentant. Given that fact along with all of the foregoing facts, Obama’s last-minute commutation of Lopez’s prison sentence is despicable.