Did Haley Barbour overlook Mississippi constitution before mass pardon?

Outgoing Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour says the state parole board had already approved release of 90 percent of the some 200 convicts he pardoned. But a judge blocked 21 of the pardons, citing the state's constitution.

Molly Riley/REUTERS
Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour speaks at the Faith & Freedom Conference and Strategy Briefing in Washington in this file photo taken last year. A Mississippi judge barred the state on January 11 from releasing any prisoners recently pardoned by former Governor Barbour, a conservative Republican who outraged some by granting clemency to more than 200 convicts during his final days in office.

A Mississippi judge has temporarily blocked 21 of over 200 executive pardons and medical releases given this week by outgoing Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, raising further questions about whether the former presidential aspirant used his pardon powers injudiciously.

Circuit Judge Tomie Green temporarily blocked the pardons of 21 current and former inmates after a complaint by Attorney General Jim Hood, who was visibly angered by what he considered Governor Barbour's violation of the state constitution. Under the law, those seeking pardons have to publish their intentions in local newspapers, and Mr. Hood said that, in at least some of the cases, Barbour granted the reprieves even though notices had not been published.

In a statement about the decision, Barbour, a largely popular governor who left office Tuesday because of a term limit law, said the state parole board had already approved release of 90 percent of those pardoned, that the majority of them had already been released, and that his main goal was to restore voting and even hunting rights for Mississippians who had paid their price to society.

But the sheer number of the pardons, and the fact that four men released over the weekend were convicted murderers, raised ire, confusion, and even fear in Mississippi, where both Republicans and Democrats questioned Barbour's last act.

“The governor undermined both the verdict of the jury and the decision of the sentencing judge apparently because he thought that these were kind of good people. That's shocking to me, that because you think they're rehabilitated you're going to undo jury verdicts,” says Jimmy Gurule, a former federal prosecutor who is now a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, in South Bend, Ind.

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Even those close to Barbour struggled to reconcile the pardon spree. "It's the magnitude of the number and the notoriety of some of the cases. There are some very angry people here" in Mississippi, says Curtis Wilkie, an Ole Miss journalism professor and childhood friend of Barbour.

Among those pardoned were Karen Irby, a Jackson socialite convicted of killing two doctors in a DUI-related crash, Ernest Favre, the brother of ex-NFL great Brett Favre, who killed his best friend in a 1997 drunk driving accident, and David Gatlin, a convicted wife-murderer who had earned good-behavior points by working as a trustee at the governor's mansion. Four of those released this weekend had worked at the mansion.

Barbour's record as governor gave at least some glimpse into his record-setting pardons. While the state executed nine people in the eight years he served as a law-and-order governor, he was also cited as a “shining example” by the NAACP last summer when he released two African-American women serving life in prison for an armed robbery that yielded $11.

As the pardons became the buzz of Mississippi, Barbour waited two days to make a statement. Released Wednesday night, the statement said 189 of the inmates had already been released by the state. "The pardons were intended to allow them to find gainful employment or acquire professional licenses as well as hunt and vote. My decision about clemency was based upon the recommendation of the Parole Board in more than 90 percent of the cases."

According to the Mississippi Department of Corrections, the five inmates released over the weekend were the only current prisoners released. Twenty-one others are still in prison, awaiting the processing of pardon paperwork, including the requirement that victims must be notified 48 hours prior to their release.

The five who were released over the weekend may have to go back to jail under Judge Green's order.

The release of the convicted murderers specifically, points to what Professor Gurule sees as a galling misuse of executive discretion.

“The pardon authority is reserved for the rare, extraordinary case where either there are substantial reasons to believe that justice was not done in a particular case – that perhaps an innocent man was unjustly convicted – or ... there are extenuating and compelling mitigating factors that justify release or justify a lesser sentence than the defendant received,” he says.

“This strikes me as being so arbitrary that it renders the governor's pardon process not only abusive, but lawless. And it's an insult, I think, to the murder victims and to their family members.”

Hood, the attorney general, said the main problem is that the return of civil rights to ex-convicts means their right to own a gun is restored, creating the potential for “public danger” especially in the cases of the freed convicted murderers.

"Hopefully it will be a lesson to any future governors that you just don't do this kind of thing. You've gotta read the law before you go out there and do something like that," Hood said.

Political scientists said the move seemed to underscore Barbour's decision last April to not run for president.

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