Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour on Friday defended more than 200 pardons he issued during his final days in office, 41 of which he gave to convicted murderers, sex offenders and child molesters.
“Mississippians are mostly Christians,” Barbour said in a lengthy statement, which he read at a Jackson press conference on Friday. “Christianity teaches us forgiveness and second chances. I believe in second chances, and I try hard to be forgiving. The historic power of gubernatorial clemency by the Governor to pardon felons is rooted in the Christian idea of giving second chances. I’m not saying I’ll be perfect, that no one who received clemency will ever do anything wrong. I’m not infallible, and no one else is. But I’m very comfortable and totally at peace with these pardons, especially of the Mansion inmates.”
Barbour went on to say that he would be perfectly comfortable allowing any of the pardoned “trusties” – prisoners who worked in the governor’s mansion, some of whom were murderers – to play with his grandchildren unsupervised. “Historically the trusties sent to work at the Mansion have been murderers, convicted of crimes of passion, as experts say they are the least likely to commit another crime,” he said. Barbour, a Republican, added that 90% of his pardons were recommended by the Mississippi Parole Board and that the clemencies would save the state millions in medical bills because many of the inmates he pardoned were suffering from chronic diseases such as diabetes.
Barbour pardoned 203 convicts two days before leaving office earlier this week. In the ensuing uproar, a judge blocked the release of most of those granted clemency who were still in prison – some 21 inmates – until a review could be performed on the legality of the pardons. The vast majority of those pardoned had already completed their terms. Under Mississippi law, a public notice must run in a newspaper 30 days prior to the pardon. “Our Mississippi constitution provides strict requirements that must be met before a Governor can even issue a pardon,” Judge Jay Westfaul, president-elect of the State Association of Mississippi Municipal Judges, told TIME. “There is no doubt in my mind that Attorney General Jim Hood will prevail and that the pardons will be declared null and void.”
Less than an hour before Barbour released his statement, Hood, a Democrat, released the preliminary findings of his investigation into the pardons. Of the 181 files Hood’s office has investigated, he says 140 had no public notice prior to Barbour’s pardon. Of the 41 cases that did, 27 were insufficient the notices were published less than 30 days before the pardons. Only seven cases fully met the rule of law, while seven more cases were still under review. But even if Hood could void Barbour’s pardons – a move that would set a new legal precedent in Mississippi – it’s not clear if it’s possible to reincarcerate the five inmates who’ve already been let out, four of them convicted murderers. Of the five, four have checked in as ordered by the Mississippi judge who stayed the release orders. But one is in Alabama and another at large. And unless the law changes, it’s impossible to issue arrest warrants for men bearing papers that deem them pardoned for their crimes. “There are some tough legal issues we are trying to address,” Hood told CNN on Thursday. “This is such a unique problem that no law has ever had to address yet. We’re having to make new law here.” That process could take months.
In the court of public opinion, Hood is clearly winning. Barbour, who as of two days ago returned to life as a lobbyist and lawyer, seemed content to let his legacy stand. “I am very comfortable with the decisions I made during my term as Governor as to clemency,” he said. “All this is consistent with the powers given the governor by our Constitution, and I am fully confident the pardons and other clemency are all valid.” Hood, though, accused Barbour of trying to live above the law. “He’s tried to rule the state like Boss Hogg and he didn’t think the law applied to him,” Hood told CNN, referring to the villain in the Dukes of Hazzard series. “This isn’t a partisan issue. Either you followed the constitution or you didn’t.”
Ultimately, Barbour is betting that Mississippians, accustomed to 11th hour gubernatorial pardons, don’t really care about a bunch of ex-convicts and that the glare of the national klieg lights will go away when the next big story breaks. Hood is betting that Mississippians will no longer stand for such outdated practices. But given that the Mississippi legislature tried and failed to curb Barbour’s clemency powers when he pardoned four convicted killers in 2008, Hood and the Democrats may be facing an uphill battle to keep the outrage going long enough to force a change in the law.