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Over the  course of my  life, I have come to understand  that a citizen who sends a letter t0 the president to petition mercy for an incarcerated   prisoner – especially one who has been convicted of conspiracy and aiding and abetting the murder of a U.S. congressman –  is akin to sending a letter to Santa Claus. No response will be forthcoming, none is expected, and in fact, the petition will never reach the president.

So, why did I write this letter to President Bill Clinton knowing full well I was writing a letter to Santa Claus? Simply this: I was asked to write the letter by a Methodist pastor, Rev. John Moore and his wife Barbara ~ both friends and colleagues of mine. The Moore’s  lost two daughters and one grandson in the “Jonestown Massacre” where more than 900 members of the People’s Temple died in a mass suicide-murder under the direction of its founder, Rev. Jim Jones. Not writing this letter to Santa Claus was not an option, my only concern was writing something that might give a reader – if there was one – something to think about.

Letter To Santa Claus ~ February 24, 1997

By LeRoy Chatfield

Dear President Clinton,

Re: Release of Larry Layton

Justice has been well served; the time for mercy is long overdue.

I’ve been in and around politics far too long to have any expectation that this letter will come to President Clinton’s personal attention. The best I can hope for is that the staff member reading this letter will be thoughtful, compassionate and have a certain breadth of life experience to realize that Larry Layton has been in prison far beyond what justice requires and what Judge Peckham ordered.

I too, spent many years living in a “cult”. During my high school years, I was permitted to visit home only once a year for 3 weeks and to receive family visitors only once a month. During my college years, I was not even permitted to visit home. I was required to turn over any gifts from family, relatives or friends to my religious superior. Unconditional and unquestioned obedience to the superior was required at all times. I freely chose this monastic way of living during the 40’s and 50’s. It was deemed socially acceptable because the “cult” was a religious order of the Catholic Church.

Then again in the 60’s and 70’s, I lived, worked and raised 4 small children in a movement “cult” whose mission was to organize and fight for the rights of California farm workers. My wife and family lived in voluntary poverty, moved to any geographical location for assignment on a day’s notice, lived in community, participated in endless meetings and retreats designed to deepen our resolve and motivate our actions. We had to live under the constant threat of violence and retaliation – for us, it meant a bullet through our front window and my wife and children deliberately forced off the road by young thugs driving a pickup. Sometimes, I even felt paranoia about what, in other circumstances, would have been innocent and harmless action or bantering. This movement “cult” had a strong personality/leader in the person of Cesar Chavez who was under constant attack by agribusiness interests but here again, this movement was deemed socially acceptable and ultimately was transformed into the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO.

In both of these “cults” there were any number of flash points, which because of my total commitment, could have led me to lash out and strike back at hostile forces, perceived or real. I too, could have ended up in prison as the result of living out my mission for which I was trained and/or perhaps even programmed.

Think about it. If young men can be trained and motivated to give up their life for their country, why cannot the same be true for those trying to protect and preserve their religious calling?

The issue now before you is not whether Larry Layton is guilty or not. He has been incarcerated in prison for 19 years for his action resulting from his participation in the “cult” of the People’s Temple. The issue is whether President Clinton should exercise mercy in Larry’s case and release him from prison.

With our century coming to a close, it seems to me only right and just – and yes, merciful too – that the President wipe the slate clean for Larry Layton and for all others who have paid such a heavy price imposed by justice.

If South Africa can heal itself from a century of unspeakable atrocities, then certainly we can too.

In the spirit of mercy,

LeRoy Chatfield


President Clinton did not commute Larry Layton’s sentence ~ Layton was released from prison in 2002. My letter was not acknowledged; I presume Santa Claus received it.




Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
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