By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press
JACKSON — The Mississippi Parole Board rejected 16 inmates’ requests for freedom before they were given full pardons by Republican Haley Barbour during his final days as governor, according to a nonpartisan legislative watchdog group.
The Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review examined Barbour’s pardons at the request of Democratic Rep. Cecil Brown of Jackson.
Brown released the PEER findings on Thursday, although PEER itself did not issue a report.
Barbour, who once considered a 2012 presidential run, pardoned 198 people shortly before ending his second term as governor Jan. 10, including four convicted killers and a convicted robber who had worked as Governor’s Mansion trusties. He also granted 13 medical releases, one suspension of sentence; one conditional, indefinite suspension of sentence; and one conditional clemency. Barbour said in January that 189 of the people he pardoned were already out of prison, and some had completed their sentences years ago.
PEER found that the 16 rejected by the Parole Board but pardoned by Barbour had been convicted of crimes ranging from methamphetamine possession to murder, Brown said Thursday. It also found that in 13 of the 16 cases, the Parole Board voted unanimously to reject the inmate’s request for release.
In the vast majority of cases examined by The Associated Press, the Parole Board did recommend a pardon, though sometimes by a split vote.
Parole Board members did not immediately return calls seeking comment Thursday.
State law does not require a governor to seek or follow Parole Board recommendations in granting pardons. Several lawmakers this year, including Brown, are proposing such a requirement, along with other possible changes to the gubernatorial pardon power. Democratic Rep. David Baria wants to ban any governor from issuing a pardon during the final 90 days in office.
Brown said PEER found that files for five of those pardoned could not be located. AP reported Jan. 25 that pardon files are missing or don’t exist for the five mansion trusties who were pardoned and released. Barbour’s lawyers said in court records that there are no files containing the Barbour’s reasons for pardoning the trusties, and that the trusties have “in a sense ‘living files'” through observations of Barbour and his staff.
Barbour has said his Christian faith teaches redemption and he believes pardons offer reformed inmates a second chance in life. He also said he trusts the five former Governor’s Mansion trusties so much that he allowed them to watch his grandchildren as the youngsters played.
Brown said PEER found that files for 10 people who were pardoned contained no application for pardon.
“I support the governor’s right to grant clemency,” Brown said. “It is an important tool to serve justice when properly executed. However, there should be a process in place to insure that there is proper documentation of all the relevant facts.”
Attorney General Jim Hood, the lone Democrat in statewide office, filed a lawsuit challenging the validity of Barbour’s pardons. Hood says some of the people who received pardons failed to fulfill a public-notice requirement. Section 124 of the Mississippi Constitution says that a person seeking a pardon must publish notice of that their intent for 30 days in a newspaper in or near the county where the crime occurred.
The state Supreme Court heard arguments Feb. 9 about Hood’s challenge of the pardons. The court has given no indication of when it will rule. Five of the people who were pardoned remain in prison while the legal challenge is pending.
The person Barbour granted conditional clemency is Karen Irby, a Jackson socialite convicted in a February 2009 drunken-driving wreck that killed two physicians. Irby originally was sentenced to 18 years in prison for two counts of manslaughter. Barbour ordered that she serve three years on house arrest, plus two years under Department of Corrections’ supervision.
Brown said that because of the public interest in the Irby case, he asked PEER to review her release.
“The Governor’s office, the Parole Board and the Department of Corrections all reported that they could not locate a file for Karen Irby,” Brown said. “It seems to have disappeared. If such a file exists, the Parole Board should have a copy because much of the information in such a file would have been collected by the Parole Board in fulfillment of its statutory duty.”
Barbour’s successor, fellow Republican Phil Bryant, has said he doesn’t intend to issue any pardons while he’s governor. Bryant has also ended a decades-old program that allowed violent inmates to work as trusties at the Governor’s Mansion. It’s a longstanding tradition for governors, as they leave office, to grant pardons or suspended sentences to the mansion trusties, who cook, clean, serve food and do other odd jobs.