January 13, 2012 11:22:00 PM
RIDGELAND -- Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said Friday he's "very comfortable" with his final-days decisions to grant pardons or other clemency to more than 200 people, including convicted killers -- decisions that outraged victims' families and dismayed even some of his most devoted supporters.
Barbour, a Republican who had considered but decided against running for president this year, said that 189 of the people who got pardons or other reprieves had already been released from prison before his actions. Only 10, he said, have been or will be fully released from prison, while several with expensive, chronic conditions are receiving medical leave.
"I am fully confident the pardons and other clemency I have given are all valid," Barbour told reporters at a news conference, his first on the subject, at the Jackson-area law firm where he now works.
Barbour granted pardons and other reprieves in his final days before leaving office after two terms Tuesday. Five inmates who had worked as trusties at the Governor's Mansion -- four of them, convicted of murder -- were released last weekend. One of the freed men had fatally shot his estranged wife as she held their baby in 1993 and then shot her male friend in the head; the friend survived.
Barbour initially declined to comment on the pardons or to provide detailed information about how many of those receiving them were still in prison. He then issued a statement after leaving office, after the pardons had generated a firestorm of criticism.
By the time state corrections officials said Wednesday that 21 on the list were still in custody, state Attorney General Jim Hood was calling the pardons "shameful" and questioning whether Barbour had violated the state constitution by not ensuring inmates gave enough public notice about their possible release.
Hood, the only statewide Democratic officeholder in Mississippi, also persuaded a state judge to temporarily block release of the 21 still in custody. State corrections officials said Friday they would start to release 13 of the 21 inmates because the 13 were given medical discharges and weren't bound by the same public notice requirements before release.
Barbour on Friday reiterated that it's a tradition in Mississippi for governors to free trusties who worked at the Governor's Mansion. And the former governor said he's not concerned that the freed trusties might harm anyone.
"I have absolute confidence, so much confidence, that I let my grandchildren play with these five men," Barbour, 64, said of the trusties freed this week.
He said the Mississippi Department of Corrections picks inmates who work at the Governor's Mansion. Typically, they are men who committed crimes of passion. Corrections officials assign them, he said, because they are not likely to commit another violent crime and make good workers.
Records show Barbour 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.
He 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 to carry a gun. A commutation reduces the penalties of a sentence but does not restore full rights.
P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political science professor at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill., who has studied pardons, said Friday that most governors have some sort of pardon power, which he sees as a useful tool. He said Barbour's pardons are surprising, not only by their sheer numbers but also by the types of people who received some sort of reprieve.
"If you look at the percentage of persons who were charged with violent crimes, it's pretty high -- murder, manslaughter, aggravated assault, rape, statutory rape, vehicular homicide," Ruckman said of those on Barbour's list. "That's just not the typical patch of pardons. Typically, you see less-serious offenses committed a long time ago and the person has served their time if they served time at all."
Barbour, a Presbyterian, said his faith teaches him the power of redemption. He said pardons provide that. Businesslike in tone, but chafing at repeated questions about whether he thought the pardoned killers might commit other crimes, Barbour said most Mississippians are Christian.
"I believe in second chances and I try hard to be forgiving," Barbour said. "I am very comfortable and totally at peace with these pardons."
While Barbour seldom engaged in lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key rhetoric as governor, he often spoke about protecting crime victims. He declined to stop each of the nine executions in Mississippi during his two terms, saying he did not want to second-guess juries' decisions.
Barbour said Friday he regretted he did not more quickly explain that most of the people who received clemency were already out of prison and some had been for years.
"Let's get the facts straight. Of the 215 who received clemency, 189 were not let out of jail. They were already out of jail," he said.
Barbour said he expected some backlash but has been surprised at some of the criticism.
"What I didn't think was that politicians would go out and tell the public we let 200 people out of the penitentiary. I didn't anticipate this would be all about politics," Barbour said.
Authorities said four of the five trusties Barbour recently pardoned have called to check in with the agency, as required by a judge this week. Department spokeswoman Suzanne Singletary said state officials have been in touch with Anthony McCray, Charles Hooker and David Gatlin, who were convicted of murder, and Nathan Kern, convicted of robbery. Corrections officials had not heard from Joseph Ozment, convicted of murder.
Ruckman said many governors use the pardon power sparingly. Some, including Arkansas Gov. Mike Bebee, have granted pardons several times during their terms. Bebee, a Democrat, announced in December that he planned to pardon six people who were convicted of theft, drug or weapons charges.
Ruckman criticized the way Barbour dropped the long list of pardons and other reprieves on the way out the door and with little explanation.
"In there, I have no doubt, there are many people who served their time, if there was any to serve, and paid their debt," Ruckman said. "Mercy was not a 'gift.' They earned mercy and should be able to celebrate their accomplishment openly, with pride. But the way Barbour did this just poisoned the well."
About six months after his first term ended, Barbour gave full pardons to four trusties who had worked at the Governor's Mansion; three had been convicted of murder and one of manslaughter. He also gave a suspended sentence to a fifth trusty who'd been convicted of murder. That former trusty, Michael Graham, received a full pardon this week.
Barbour is a former Republican National Committee chairman. He is now on the paid speakers' circuit and works for the law firm and for BGR, the Washington lobbying firm he founded two decades ago.
He said many of the people he pardoned this year had applied for release during his first term. He said he did few pardons then because he and his staff were busy with Hurricane Katrina recovery.
Barbour said Friday that some of the same Mississippi politicians who attacked him had also asked him to pardon people. He charged that Hood didn't object when Barbour's predecessor, Democrat Ronnie Musgrove, released convicted killers who worked at the Governor's Mansion.
Hood's spokeswoman said he was not available to respond Friday.
Barbour said his father died when he was 2 years old. And when his grandfather, a judge, became disabled, an inmate was assigned to help him.
"I watched the power of a second chance and what it did for Leon Turner," he said, referring to that inmate.
But Barbour said two sisters released last year on the condition one donate a kidney to the other showed no remorse for their crime so they weren't among 200 people to whom he gave a full pardon. Jamie and Gladys Scott served nearly 16 years of their life sentences for armed robbery when they were released. Gladys Scott said Thursday that she was innocent.
Said Barbour: "You can't ask for redemption until you admit that you sinned."