By Charlie Mitchell
OXFORD – Abraham Lincoln had it. So did Henry VIII, Pol Pot, King Tut, Pontius Pilate, Josef Stalin, Nelson Mandela and Julius Caesar. Almost every “supreme leader” has had the power to release criminal offenders with the stroke of a pen.
Until noon last Tuesday, Haley Barbour had it.
His decisions on how to wield it – exonerating more than people, including killers and robbers – sent waves of dismay through Mississippi. It validated the suspicion and contempt some consistently harbored for the two-term governor. It disappointed (to say the least) thousands who had viewed him as a fair-minded, evenhanded, justice-loving chief executive. It caused longtime political foes, Attorney General Jim Hood and Circuit Judge Tomie Green, to read Section 124 of the state Constitution and try to enforce it.
In the highest-profile cases, the pattern is familiar. On their way out the mansion door, Mississippi governors often pardon all or several of the trusties, often “crime of passion” killers, who just as routinely have been assigned by the Department of Corrections to serve as household help to first families. Anger follows, but in the era of good feeling that follows an inauguration, talk of reform fades.
The rationale for the power of the pardon is as old as the power itself: In totalitarian societies and in democracies alike, people are assured when there is one person who can right a wrong. We believe a ship is better off with a captain, not a committee. At the state level, we require one person to sign a final warrant for an execution (which Barbour did eight times) or the condemned person lives.
At the same time, free societies are reluctant to grant too much power to one person. There are many major decisions we insist must be made by a group. Declarations of war, for example, must come from Congress A president can’t even appoint a judge without Senate approval. But the justice system is different. We’ve seen that politics or inertia can unjustly deprive a person of liberty. We believe in latter-discovered evidence. We believe in redemption. So we give presidents and governors the power of the pardon for one reason: We want them to use it wisely, not for personal gain or favors, but as a last check against injustice.
The power has been abused before. The people who wrote Mississippi’s Constitution 122 tried to inject accountability, but managed only a smidgen. The applicable part of Section 124 says, “In cases of felony, after conviction no pardon shall be granted until the applicant therefor shall have published for 30 days, in some newspaper in the county where the crime was committed … his petition for pardon, setting forth therein the reasons why such pardon should be granted.”
Hood and Green are correct to respect this provision and seek to enforce it against the 26 or so offenders who had remained in custody. But it must be pointed out that the notice requirement is purely procedural. It doesn’t do anything to curtail the power of the chief executive. It applies only when a felon requests a pardon. It does not require a governor to explain anything. Printed notices that have appeared have been in the smallest type. And the petitioner simply claims to have been rehabilitated. There’s no hearing, no review of any type.
For Barbour himself to speak to the matter was out of character. A consistent tenet of his communications policy has been when any of his decisions is questioned, he declines to explain or defend. The statements he has made have done little to put out the fire.
Voices are rising in the Legislature to “do something” to rein in the pardon power. To change the Constitution would be difficult and is unlikely. But look for the practice of assigning trusties to serve as white-coated waiters to mansion visitors to come to an end. Lawmakers can do that. And it’s time.
An unjust or unexplained pardon is the ultimate insult to victims of crime, especially to the families of murder victims. It’s a slap in the face, taken as an indication that a chief executive cares more about the criminal than the crime.
Barbour, who left office with the highest approval ratings in history, says he doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about.
That’s hard to believe.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.