Muhammad Ali Was Exonerated, but Trump Wants to Pardon Him Anyway

Sixteen days after granting a posthumous pardon to Jack Johnson and not quite 48 hours after commuting the sentence of a 63-year-old great grandmother who was imprisoned for selling drugs, President Donald Trump told a group of reporters that he was considering a bunch of other pardons, specifically mentioning the late Muhammad Ali. “He was not very popular then; his memory is very popular now,” said Trump. “I’m thinking about Muhammad Ali. I’m thinking of that very seriously.”

Anti-Trump pundits – their numbers are legion — are having a good horse laugh. There is nothing to pardon Muhammad Ali for. In 1971, the United States Supreme Court effectively pardoned him by overturning his conviction for draft dodging. For good measure, President Jimmy Carter issued a blanket pardon to all Viet Nam draft dodgers in 1977.

On April 22, 1967, six days after stopping badly overmatched Zora Folley in the seventh round at Madison Square Garden in the ninth defense of his world heavyweight title, Ali refused an order to step forward and submit to the draft at an Army induction center in Houston, Texas.

Retribution was swift. On that very same day, the New York State Athletic Commission revoked his boxing license, begetting a spasm of revocations in other jurisdictions. The World Boxing Association followed suit. The NYSAC and the WBA were then the two most powerful sanctioning bodies in the world.

Ten days later, Ali was indicted by a federal grand jury for draft evasion. Although he was subsequently found guilty, he never spent a day in prison. He remained free on bond while his lawyers appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court.

On June 28, 1971, the Supreme Court overturned the decision. The ruling was unanimous. (Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall, the only African-American member of the Supreme Court, recused himself and did not vote.) By reversing the guilty verdict, the court effectively wiped the verdict off the books as if it had never been rendered.

Informed what Trump had said, Ali Family lawyer Ron Tweel said that he appreciated Trump’s sentiment but that no pardon was necessary: “There is no conviction from which a pardon is needed.”

Others were not so gracious. In Muhammad Ali’s hometown, Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Marcy Costello quoted a local attorney who wondered if Trump would be pardoning fictional characters next.

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