The red, white and blue bunting is still up, whipping in the winter winds on the temporary platform in front of Mississippi’s state capitol. Two days ago, a new governor was sworn in here. But the satellite trucks that still ring the capitol aren’t interested in the new executive; they’re still focused on the old one. The name on the lips of local and national correspondents alike on Thursday night was Haley Barbour.
Barbour became a private citizen two days ago when he officially left Mississippi’s gubernatorial mansion, where he’d lived for the last eight years, but it was his actions in his final days as governor that have the state in an uproar. After issuing just eight pardons in his first seven years, Barbour pardoned 208 convicts, 41 of them murderers, sex offenders or child molesters, during his last 48 hours in office. Barbour notes that 90% of the people he pardoned weren’t in prison, but four murderers have been released. And by expunging their records, they can now legally buy guns, just as the sex offenders he pardoned no longer need to give their names to the sex offender registry.
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The ensuing tumult has not only cast a shadow over Barbour’s otherwise triumphant exit from office, but Governor Phil Bryant’s new job as well. When TIME called the governor’s office requesting contact information for Barbour, Bryant’s staff said they didn’t know how to reach the man who was Bryant’s mentor. “I’m sorry, we have no contact with governor Barbour and no information for you,” said a receptionist. Since taking office, practically the only question reporters have asked Bryant is if he’ll challenge his predecessor’s pardons. So far he’s declined to do so, saying only that his own pardons would be issued with good cause. Meanwhile, Democrats are working on legislation to curb the governor’s pardoning power, and a Mississippi judge has halted the release of any other prisoners and ordered that those who have been released report in daily until a review of all 208 pardons is complete.
This isn’t the first time opponents have been outraged by Barbour’s pardons. He gave four of his eight prior pardons to convicted murderers, all of whom were participants in the “trusty” program, which employs convicts at the governor’s mansion. In 2008, Democrats tried unsuccessfully to amend the governor’s clemency powers to force him to consult law enforcement officials and victims before making such decisions. Clearly, the trusty program has left a mark on Barbour: four of the murderers freed in recent days were also trusties. One, David Gatlin, who shot and killed his wife while she held their two-month-old child, was denied parole twice in 2010. “It’s awful; it really is,” Tiffany Ellis Brewer, Gatlin’s wife’s sister, told The New York Times. ”There’s pain, fear for our lives. Disappointment. Disgust.”
In a statement late Wednesday, Barbour cited the tradition of pardoning trusties, which has a long history in the state. But before Barbour, Mississippi governors had pardoned only 18 convicts since 1988. And while it’s true that trusties who were also convicted murderers have often had their sentences reduced or commuted by governors, it is rare for them to receive outright pardons as eight have under Barbour. Even for a state accustomed to such traditions, Barbour’s actions seemed to have crossed a line.
Barbour waited three days as the media storm raged before issuing a statement. “My decision about clemency was based upon the recommendation of the Parole Board in more than 90 percent of the cases,” he said. “The 26 people released from custody due to clemency is just slightly more than one-tenth of 1 percent of those incarcerated.” But Barbour’s explanations have only drawn more fire. After Barbour said 13 of those pardoned were saddling the state with heavy medical bills, local news outlets picked apart his claim, reporting that the cost to taxpayers was “negligible.” Barbour also said he chose to grant clemency to some convicts rather than commuting their sentences “to allow them to find gainful employment or acquire professional licenses as well as hunt and vote.” As noted at the top of Jackson’s 6 p.m. ABC News broadcast on Thursday, that decision also restored violent criminals’ access to guns.
While many locals are outraged at the pardons Barbour issued, there are others who are incensed over those he declined to set free. While flirting with a run for President, Barbour came under pressure to pardon Jamie and Gladys Scott. The sisters had no criminal records before receiving double life sentences for allegedly orchestrating an armed robbery with three teenage boys in 1993. The five netted $11 from two muggings. Barbour chose not to pardon them, but he did commute their sentences on the bizarre condition that one sister donate a kidney to the other, who needed a transplant because of diabetes. The sisters, who will remain on parole for the rest of their lives, had asked for full pardons.
Barbour, who has announced he’ll be returning to work for BGR , the D.C. lobbying firm he helped found, as well as joining a Mississippi lawfirm, has yet to speak publicly about his unusual pardons. Of course, 11th-hour pardon scandals have blown over in the past. On his last day in office, former President Bill Clinton issued 140 pardons, granting clemency to controversial figures such as Mark Rich. But for the immediate future, the news vans around Jackson’s capitol aren’t going anywhere.