By Holbrook Mohr/The Associated Pres
JACKSON — Outgoing Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has pardoned at least four convicted killers who worked as inmate trusties at the Governor’s Mansion, including a man who was denied parole less than two weeks ago.
Relatives of three victims told The Associated Press on Monday that state corrections officials notified them over the weekend that the convicts were to be released this past Sunday. Barbour, a Republican who weighed a presidential run last year before deciding against it, leaves office on Tuesday.
The pardons outraged victims’ relatives. Democratic lawmakers called for an end to the custom of governors’ issuing such end-of-tenure pardons
While Barbour’s office hasn’t responded to messages about the pardons, he told the AP in 2008 that releasing the trusties who live and work at the mansion is a tradition in Mississippi that goes back decades. Trusties are prisoners who earn privileges through good behavior.
The Barbour administration did not publicize the pardons, which became public when family members notified the media. The Mississippi Secretary of State’s office released copies of the pardons Monday afternoon. They show Barbour has pardoned at least five men.
The former inmates are David Gatlin, convicted of killing his estranged wife in 1993; Joseph Ozment, convicted in 1994 of killing a man during a robbery; Anthony McCray, convicted in 2001 of killing his wife; Charles Hooker, sentenced to life in 1992 for murder; and Nathan Kern, sentenced to life in 1982 for burglary after at least two prior convictions.
Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said Monday afternoon that the inmates were released Sunday.
The 40-year-old Gatlin was sentenced to life in prison in the 1993 slaying of Tammy Ellis Gatlin and the shooting of Randy Walker, her long-time friend.
Walker’s mother, Glenda Walker, said Monday that Gatlin shot his estranged wife while she was holding their young baby, then shot her son in the head.
“He left that little baby on his dead mother’s body,” Glenda Walker said. “It was a horrendous murder.”
Randy Walker, who lives in Rankin County, said he voted for Barbour for governor in 2003 and 2007. Before Barbour’s pardon of Gatlin, Walker said he would’ve supported Barbour for president, if Barbour had run.
“I’m totally disgusted,” Walker said Monday. “I think Gov. Barbour at heart is a great man. I think he’s done a lot of good for the state of Mississippi, but I think he’s made a huge error here…. One man can’t put you in jail. I don’t think it’s right for one man to remove you from jail.”
Tiffany Ellis Brewer of Pearl, sister of Tammy Ellis Gatlin, said David Gatlin’s release revived the grief for her family and Walker’s family.
“It’s liked it’s happened all over again to us,” Brewer said. “We can’t do anything about our situation now because he’s out, he’s gone. But I don’t want anyone in this world to feel the fear, the pain and the hurt that our families are feeling right now. Something needs to be done.”
The Mississippi Parole Board turned down Gatlin on Dec. 27, according to a letter dated Jan. 4 and obtained by AP. The letter did not explain why the Parole Board rejected Gatlin’s parole request. It said he was due for another parole hearing in October.
Shannon Warnock, chair of the parole board, didn’t immediately respond to a message Monday.
Other victims’ relatives said they were also shocked by Barbour’s pardons.
Joann Martin, a probation officer from Fort Worth, Texas, said Anthony McCray killed her sister.
McCray pleaded guilty in 2001 to killing Jennifer Bonds McCray, 38, at Ramsey’s Cafe in McComb. The couple apparently had been arguing before the shooting. He left the cafe and returned with a gun. Jennifer McCray was shot once in the back.
“It’s very painful for my family that he was released. When he killed her, she had a 3-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son, who have been raised by my other sister,” Martin said. “It’s a shame before God. It’s almost like you kill somebody and nobody cares.”
Democrats were quick to condemn the pardons, though past governors from both parties have granted some sort of early release to the inmates who lived and worked at the Governor’s Mansion.
“Serving your sentence at the Governor’s Mansion where you pour liquor, cook and clean should not earn a pardon for murder,” Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, a Democrat, posted Monday on his Facebook page.
Members of the Mississippi House Democratic Caucus held a press conference at the Mississippi Capitol Rotunda and called for limits on governors’ ability to pardon inmates. They said they would introduce legislation this year.
Mark McAbee said Barbour pardoned the man who killed his uncle, Ricky Montgomery.
McAbee said Ozment was sentenced to life in 1994 for the slaying, which happened during a robbery with several other men.
“One of the other ones shot my uncle three times. He was crawling toward Joseph Ozment for help. He didn’t know Joseph Ozment was involved. He was crawling to him for help. Joseph Ozment put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger twice,” McAbee said.
He called the pardon “a slap in the face.”
Barbour created a similar stir by releasing convicted killer Michael Graham in 2008. Barbour later defended “the custom” of governors reducing the sentences of the mansion’s inmate workers if they behave.
Barbour’s three predecessors, dating back to 1988, gave some type of early release or pardon to a total of 12 Governor’s Mansion trusties. All but two of them had been convicted of murder. One was serving time for forgery and another for armed robbery and aggravated assault.
Epps, the corrections commissioner, told the AP in 2008 that the inmates who end up working at the Governor’s Mansion are often convicted murderers because they are the ones who serve long enough sentences to build the trust needed for such a task.
Epps said Monday he wasn’t taking a position on the practice of governors granting pardons, but pointed out that governors in Mississippi for decades have used their powers to let prisoners out early, including Governor’s Mansion trusties convicted of serious crimes such as murder. He said he can’t remember a case in which one of them committed another serious crime.
“I have sympathy and empathy for the victims,” Epps said. “I’ve been a crime victim, but the point of the matter is this is just something that happens.”
Associated Press Writer Emily Wagster Pettus contributed to this report.