Miss. lawmakers propose limits on pardons by governors

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Some Mississippi lawmakers want to limit the governor’s pardon powers, a discussion prompted by Republican Haley Barbour’s actions as he left office last Tuesday.

Barbour granted pardons or other reprieves to more than 200 people, including many convicted of violent crimes. He said 189 had served their time, and pardons offer a chance for redemption.

“We believe in forgiveness of sin. We believe in second chances,” Barbour said last Friday, explaining his decisions.

The new governor, Republican Phil Bryant, said last week he has no intention to pardon anyone. He’s also changing a trusty program that allows a few inmates to cook, clean or do other odd jobs at the Governor’s Mansion. Trusties are chosen by the state Department of Corrections. and they’re traditionally pardoned or given some other relief, such as suspended sentence, when a governor leaves office.

Barbour pardoned the 10 trusties who worked during eight years at the mansion — five each term. Eight were convicted of murder, one of manslaughter and one of robbery. Barbour said he was so confident that the trusties had been reformed that he had let them watch his grandchildren while they played at the mansion.

The governor’s pardon powers are spelled out in the state constitution. Democratic Rep. David Baria of Bay St. Louis is proposing a constitutional amendment to ban any governor from granting pardons during the final 90 days of a four-year term.

Baria is also proposing a bill — not a constitutional amendment — that would require notice be given to the local sheriff or district attorney when a pardon is considered. Baria said that would allow the sheriff or prosecutor to hold a public hearing in the county where the crime occurred to give victims and others a chance to speak. He said a transcript of that information could be sent to the governor.

“I’m not trying to eliminate this governor’s or any other governor’s constitutional prerogative to do pardons,” Baria said. “But, we could put reasonable restrictions to allow people to be heard before a pardon is granted.”

When Bryant became governor last Tuesday, he immediately halted the practice of trusties spending the night on the grounds of the Governor’s Mansion in downtown Jackson, Bryant spokesman Mick Bullock said. Bryant is also ending the use of violent offenders as mansion trusties, Bullock said.

“That was discussed several weeks ago,” Bullock said Monday.

Bullock said Bryant’s changes in the trusty program were not prompted by the uproar over the Barbour pardons.

Records show that during Barbour’s two terms, he 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.

Barbour 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 carry a gun. A commutation reduces the penalties of a sentence but does not restore full rights.

James Robertson, a former Mississippi Supreme Court justice who’s now in a private law practice in Jackson, said the pardon power is “a virtue of all enlightened and humane societies” and it should not be eliminated.

Without commenting on the specifics of the Barbour pardons and reprieves, Robertson said the pardon power is important in three situations — if an innocent person is convicted, if an excessive sentence is given and if a sentence was just when it was given but the convicted person has proved worthy of pardon or reprieve.

“In simple terms, I have no doubt that there are persons in prison today that do not need to be there, neither for the public good or any other reason,” Robertson said. “Understand that our criminal justice system has been designed by fallible human beings acting in a state of imperfect knowledge. The officials who implement and enforce that system are no doubt highly motivated, well meaning, public spirited citizens who try hard to do what is right and just. At the end of the day, these individuals are similarly fallible human beings. The pardon or reprieve is an appropriate ameliorative remedy for harsh or otherwise excessive sentences.”

During interviews the past several days, Democratic and Republican lawmakers said they’d be willing to consider some changes in the pardon process. Most said they want to see detailed proposals before deciding what to support.

“I think the people of the state of Mississippi are going to demand that the Legislature look at it,” said Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Pickens.

Clark said he respects that any governor has the right to issue pardons, and he thinks there is a place for pardons in some cases. “I think the outrage and the concern for most citizens is just the number of them,” he said.

One of the inmates Barbour pardoned is David Gatlin, now 40, who was convicted of murder, aggravated assault and burglary. Gatlin was sentenced to life in prison in the 1993 slaying of his estranged wife, Tammy Ellis Gatlin, and the shooting of Randy Walker, her long-time friend. Tammy Ellis Gatlin was holding her infant when she was killed, and the baby was left in a pool of his mother’s blood, said Tammy’s sister, Tiffany Ellis Brewer of Pearl.

Walker said last week that he voted for Barbour in 2003 and 2007 and generally considered him a good governor. But Walker said he was “disgusted” by Barbour’s pardon of Gatlin.

Walker is now afraid to answer the door, said his mother, Glenda Walker: “But wouldn’t you be if a bullet went through your head from one side to the other?”

Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune, said he thinks lawmakers should set some criteria for governors to follow in granting pardons. Formby, whose aunt was slain during a burglary in 1987, said he is sympathetic to victims’ families.

“I think the governor should have the right and the responsibility — I say that, because it is a big responsibility — to offer forgiveness to someone who has proven to be deserving,” Formby said.

Barbour gave one of the first-term trusties, Michael Graham, an indefinite suspended sentence in July 2008. Barbour gave Graham a full pardon last week. Graham was convicted of murder in slaying of his ex-wife, Adrienne Klasky, who had divorced him in 1986. Klasky was shot on April 7, 1989, with a 12-gauge shotgun in Pascagoula.