By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press
RIDGELAND — Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said Friday he’s “very comfortable” with his final-days decisions to grant pardons or other clemency to more than 200 people, including convicted killers — decisions that outraged victims’ families and dismayed even some of his most devoted supporters.
Barbour, a Republican who had considered but decided against running for president this year, said that 189 of the people who got pardons or other reprieves had already been released from prison before his actions. Only 10, he said, have been or will be fully released from prison, while several with expensive, chronic conditions are receiving medical leave.
“I am fully confident the pardons and other clemency I have given are all valid,” Barbour told reporters at a news conference, his first on the subject, at the Jackson-area law firm where he now works.
Barbour granted pardons and other reprieves in his final days before leaving office after two terms Tuesday. Five inmates who had worked as trusties at the Governor’s Mansion — four of them, convicted of murder — were released last weekend. One of the freed men had fatally shot his estranged wife as she held their baby in 1993 and then shot her male friend in the head; the friend survived.
Barbour initially declined to comment on the pardons or to provide detailed information about how many of those receiving them were still in prison. He then issued a statement after leaving office, after the pardons had generated a firestorm of criticism.
By the time state corrections officials said Wednesday that 21 on the list were still in custody, state Attorney General Jim Hood was calling the pardons “shameful” and questioning whether Barbour had violated the state constitution by not ensuring inmates gave enough public notice about their possible release.
Hood, the only statewide Democratic officeholder in Mississippi, also persuaded a state judge to temporarily block release of the 21 still in custody. State corrections officials said Friday they would start to release 13 of the 21 inmates because the 13 were given medical discharges and weren’t bound by the same public notice requirements before release.
Barbour on Friday reiterated that it’s a tradition in Mississippi for governors to free trusties who worked at the Governor’s Mansion. And the former governor said he’s not concerned that the freed trusties might harm anyone.
“I have absolute confidence, so much confidence, that I let my grandchildren play with these five men,” Barbour, 64, said of the trusties freed this week.
He said the Mississippi Department of Corrections picks inmates who work at the Governor’s Mansion. Typically, they are men who committed crimes of passion. Corrections officials assign them, he said, because they are not likely to commit another violent crime and make good workers.
Records show Barbour gave “full, complete and unconditional” pardons to 203 people, including 17 convicted of murder, 10 convicted of manslaughter, eight convicted of aggravated assault and five convicted of drunken-driving incidents that caused deaths.
He granted some sort of reprieve to 26 inmates who were in custody — 10 full pardons; 13 medical releases; one suspension of sentence; one conditional, indefinite suspension of sentence; and one conditional clemency.
A pardon erases any remaining punishment for a conviction and restores rights such as those to vote or to carry a gun. A commutation reduces the penalties of a sentence but does not restore full rights.
P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political science professor at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill., who has studied pardons, said Friday that most governors have some sort of pardon power, which he sees as a useful tool. He said Barbour’s pardons are surprising, not only by their sheer numbers but also by the types of people who received some sort of reprieve.
“If you look at the percentage of persons who were charged with violent crimes, it’s pretty high — murder, manslaughter, aggravated assault, rape, statutory rape, vehicular homicide,” Ruckman said of those on Barbour’s list. “That’s just not the typical patch of pardons. Typically, you see less-serious offenses committed a long time ago and the person has served their time if they served time at all.”
Barbour, a Presbyterian, said his faith teaches him the power of redemption. He said pardons provide that. Businesslike in tone, but chafing at repeated questions about whether he thought the pardoned killers might commit other crimes, Barbour said most Mississippians are Christian.
“I believe in second chances and I try hard to be forgiving,” Barbour said. “I am very comfortable and totally at peace with these pardons.”
While Barbour seldom engaged in lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key rhetoric as governor, he often spoke about protecting crime victims. He declined to stop each of the nine executions in Mississippi during his two terms, saying he did not want to second-guess juries’ decisions.
Barbour said Friday he regretted he did not more quickly explain that most of the people who received clemency were already out of prison and some had been for years.
“Let’s get the facts straight. Of the 215 who received clemency, 189 were not let out of jail. They were already out of jail,” he said.
Barbour said he expected some backlash but has been surprised at some of the criticism.
“What I didn’t think was that politicians would go out and tell the public we let 200 people out of the penitentiary. I didn’t anticipate this would be all about politics,” Barbour said.
Authorities said four of the five trusties Barbour recently pardoned have called to check in with the agency, as required by a judge this week. Department spokeswoman Suzanne Singletary said state officials have been in touch with Anthony McCray, Charles Hooker and David Gatlin, who were convicted of murder, and Nathan Kern, convicted of robbery. Corrections officials had not heard from Joseph Ozment, convicted of murder.
Ruckman said many governors use the pardon power sparingly. Some, including Arkansas Gov. Mike Bebee, have granted pardons several times during their terms. Bebee, a Democrat, announced in December that he planned to pardon six people who were convicted of theft, drug or weapons charges.
Ruckman criticized the way Barbour dropped the long list of pardons and other reprieves on the way out the door and with little explanation.
“In there, I have no doubt, there are many people who served their time, if there was any to serve, and paid their debt,” Ruckman said. “Mercy was not a ‘gift.’ They earned mercy and should be able to celebrate their accomplishment openly, with pride. But the way Barbour did this just poisoned the well.”
About six months after his first term ended, Barbour gave full pardons to four trusties who had worked at the Governor’s Mansion; three had been convicted of murder and one of manslaughter. He also gave a suspended sentence to a fifth trusty who’d been convicted of murder. That former trusty, Michael Graham, received a full pardon this week.
Barbour is a former Republican National Committee chairman. He is now on the paid speakers’ circuit and works for the law firm and for BGR, the Washington lobbying firm he founded two decades ago.
He said many of the people he pardoned this year had applied for release during his first term. He said he did few pardons then because he and his staff were busy with Hurricane Katrina recovery.
Barbour said Friday that some of the same Mississippi politicians who attacked him had also asked him to pardon people. He charged that Hood didn’t object when Barbour’s predecessor, Democrat Ronnie Musgrove, released convicted killers who worked at the Governor’s Mansion.
Hood’s spokeswoman said he was not available to respond Friday.
Barbour said his father died when he was 2 years old. And when his grandfather, a judge, became disabled, an inmate was assigned to help him.
“I watched the power of a second chance and what it did for Leon Turner,” he said, referring to that inmate.
But Barbour said two sisters released last year on the condition one donate a kidney to the other showed no remorse for their crime so they weren’t among 200 people to whom he gave a full pardon. Jamie and Gladys Scott served nearly 16 years of their life sentences for armed robbery when they were released. Gladys Scott said Thursday that she was innocent.
Said Barbour: “You can’t ask for redemption until you admit that you sinned.”
Attorney General Jim Hood review of pardons
Press Release from the Attorney General
Jackson – Attorney General Jim Hood today released the findings of his preliminary review into the over 200 recent pardons by former Governor Haley Barbour and the search to serve notice on the five criminals released Sunday.
“We have served notice on Anthony McCray and David Gatlin, two of the five men released on Sunday,” said Attorney General Hood. “McRay was served last night in Pike County and Gatlin was served today in Alabama by our public integrity investigators.”
McCray has checked in with DOC, along with Nathan Kern and Charles Hooker.
“We have leads on the remaining individual, but would appreciate if anyone with information as to his whereabouts would contact our office at 601-359-3680.”
The Attorney General’s Office continues to look for Joseph Ozmet (DeSoto).
The Attorney General’s preliminary review of the pardons shows:
– Of 222 pardons, commutations, suspensions and pardons, 203 are full pardons.
– Of the 21 inmates ordered detained by the Hinds County Circuit Court, five were full pardons, the rest were commutations or suspensions. Those five pardons are still being reviewed to determine whether they have met the publication requirement of Section 124 of the Mississippi Constitution.
– The AGO has reviewed 181 files received from the Governor’s Office. One hundred forty of those files did not contain any publication information. Forty one of those contained publication information and, of those 41, 27 appear to be insufficient (they do not meet the 30 day publication requirement). Seven of the 41 do appear to meet the publication requirement and seven are still being reviewed.
More specific information will be released when the Attorney General’s review is complete.
The AGO has been working with the District Attorney’s and local law enforcement agencies to contact local newspapers to determine how many of the pardons actually met the requirements of the law.
“Obviously it is an arduous task,” said Attorney General Hood. “We have dedicated a large number of staff to resolving this issue as soon as possible.”
“Our preliminary investigation indicates that the majority of these purported pardons did not have sufficient publication and therefore we will introduce our evidence in Hinds County Circuit Court on January 23 and ask the court to hold these purported pardons null and void,” said Attorney General Hood. “We are asking anyone who received a pardon to call our office at 601-359-4210 with information and documentation showing they met the criteria.”