Haley Barbour's pardons put Southern redemption on trial

Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour defended his mass pardon of over 200 current and former convicts, quoting the Christian principle of redemption enshrined in Southern law and tradition.

By , Staff writer

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    Former Gov. Haley Barbour tells reporters that he's "very comfortable" with his decision to grant pardons or other clemency to more than 200 people. Barbour said that nearly 190 of the individuals had already been released from prison. Only 10, he said, have been or will be fully released from prison.
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Given the disproportionate number of executions in the South, it's safe to argue that the region leads the nation when it comes to tough justice. But as former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour showed this week by pardoning over 200 current and former convicts, including 41 convicted of violent crimes like murder and rape, the region also stands out for its Christian trust in the idea of redemption.

The breadth of the pardons, which included a number of notable convicts like Brett Favre's brother, Ernest Favre, and convicted Jackson socialite Karen Irby, shocked and angered many Mississippians, including its chief prosecutor, Attorney General Jim Hood, who believes many of the pardons were unlawful and is seeking to have many of them revoked.

President Bill Clinton, who pardoned 140 people, including the convicted financier Mark Rich, upon leaving the White House in 2001, embodied that principle, gleaned from his days as the governor of Arkansas. Combined with enduring “trusty” systems that allow rehabilitated convicts to work at state governors' mansions, Southern states, perhaps in part because they tend to have larger per capita prison populations than states in other regions, also rely more heavily on executive clemencies and pardons.

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But in defending the pardons this week, Mr. Barbour, a popular two-term governor and one-time presidential aspirant, also cited his Christian upbringing and early life experience watching a rehabilitated convict care for his disabled grandfather as the reasons why he remained “totally at peace” with his decision, noting that he would allow any of those he pardoned to play with his grandchildren.

“Christianity teaches us forgiveness and second chances,” Barbour said at a press conference Friday in Jackson, Miss. “I believe in second chances, and I try hard to be forgiving. The historic power of gubernatorial clemency by the Governor to pardon felons is rooted in the Christian idea of giving second chances.”

Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas and even Texas have long traditions of using clemency and pardon as a judicial safety valve. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, for example, has a more generous pardon record than his rival for the presidency, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has boasted on the campaign trail that he's never pardoned a single inmate.

Nationally, the idea of executive pardons, floated as a necessary check on the courts by Alexander Hamilton, is also influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition.

“In the federal system, wardens would recommend Christmas pardons to the president,” P.S. Ruckman, Jr., a political science professor at Rock Valley College in Illinois, told ABC News. “They don’t do that anymore,” he added. But “one out of every two pardons granted by the president in the last 39 years has been granted in the month of December.”

But even in Mississippi, most governors have exercised their pardon more powers more judiciously than Barbour, says James Winkle, a political science professor at Ole Miss, in Oxford.

“Barbour's exercise of pardoning power defies convention at least,” he says. At the same time, he adds, “No one knows the background of all these cases, so it's very difficult to draw any kind of reasonable inferences from the governor's actions.”

Critics say Barbour took the idea too far, with Mr. Hood suggesting that the patriarchal power of the Mississippi governorship turned Barbour into “Boss Hogg,” the stereotypical bumbling country sheriff from the 1980s TV series “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Others, including University of Notre Dame law professor Jimmy Gurule, said Barbour used the pardon process “so arbitrarily that it renders the process not only abusive, but lawless,” by invalidating hundreds of jury decisions, in at least four cases for convicted murderers who walked free with their criminal records expunged.

A review of 181 of the pardons by Hood, the attorney general, pointed out that 140 of them had no public notice prior to the pardon, as required by the state constitution, and another 27 had insufficient notices under the law.

On Wednesday, Circuit Court Judge Tomie Green stayed 26 of the pardons, including those of five former Governor's Mansion trustees who were released last Sunday. As of Saturday, four of those five had checked in with authorities as requested by the judge. But it's far from clear whether those men can be sent back to prison, since the state can't technically write up arrest warrants for citizens bearing pardon papers.

“There are some tough legal issues we are trying to address,” Hood told CNN on Thursday. “This is such a unique problem that no law has ever had to address yet. We’re having to make new law here.”

While presidents used to hand pardons out more liberally, the practice has been curtailed because of political backlash. Political scientists widely believe that Barbour felt free to pardon such a large number of people because he had made his mind up that he would not seek public office again.

The Monitor's Weekly News Quiz for Jan. 9-13, 2012

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