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Did Haley Barbour's pardon spree go too far?

Outgoing Gov. Haley Barbour (R) gave reprieves to 208 inmates, including 14 convicted murderers, prompting Democratic legislators to reintroduce a bill that would curb pardon powers.

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Former Gov. Haley Barbour (l.) and Gov. Phil Bryant confer during Bryant's inauguration ceremony at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday. Mr. Barbour, a popular two-term governor who was term-limited from serving more, has given full pardons or clemency to 208 inmates, prompting Democratic legislators to reintroduce a bill that would curb pardon powers.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP

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A law-and-order Republican governor, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, has given full pardons or clemency to 208 inmates, including 14 convicted murderers, setting off a political uproar over the limits of executive power in the traditionally patriarchal South.

Mr. Barbour, a popular two-term governor who was term-limited from serving more, signed the pardons before leaving office on Tuesday. The surprise spree caught both Republicans and Democrats off stride, and it suggested that Barbour, who had flirted with running for the White House last year, may be leaving politics for good.

The release Sunday of one convicted killer, David Gatlin, raised fears among those who knew his victim, a slain wife and mom, that he would try to "finish what he started," CNN reported.

More broadly, the pardons have scrambled traditional political roles in the state, with the Republican Barbour going easy on scores of convicted criminals and Democrats clamoring to bolster law and order. Toward that end, they reintroduced a bill to curb gubernatorial pardon power.

“It seems to kind of fly in the face of the Haley Barbour politician that we all know, because he is a strong law-and-order guy,” says Curtis Wilkie, a journalism professor at Ole Miss in Oxford.

Barbour has refused to comment on the pardons. Several are high-profile convicts, including Jackson socialite Karen Irby, convicted of manslaughter in 2010 for the DUI-related deaths of two doctors; Earnest Scott Favre, older brother of retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre, who was convicted for the DUI-related death of his friend; and Azikiwe Kambule, a South African expat convicted in a 1996 carjacking and murder case.

Eighty of the pardoned prisoners had committed crimes including murder, homicide, manslaughter, rape, aggravated assault (including one on a police officer), and armed robbery. Thirty-two of those prisoners received full pardons, meaning they were set free without conditions.

Other pardoned prisoners include inmates who worked at the Governor's Mansion under a “good behavior” program that traditionally has been a route to clemency or pardon.

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Pardons have long been a controversial executive tool, often leading to charges of favoritism. President Clinton, for one, made controversial pardon decisions upon leaving office.

The torrid pardon pace by Barbour outdistanced other Mississippi governors by a wide margin. Former Gov. Kirk Fordice had the previous high, pardoning 13. Before this week's pardons, Barbour had previously signed the release papers for 10 convicted criminals, none of whom have caused any trouble, the Mississippi Department of Corrections commissioner, Christopher Epps, told Mississippi reporters.

“Most governors have exercised this authority rather judiciously, so Barbour's exercise of pardoning power defies convention,” says John Winkle, a political science professor at Ole Miss. "At the same time, no one, to the best of my knowledge, knows the background of all these individual cases, so it's very difficult to draw any kind of reasonable inferences from the governor's actions.”

To be sure, Barbour's pardons may help to challenge perceptions about the ability of people to be rehabilitated by the criminal justice system. The pardons could also spur discussion about whether the gubernatorial power to act extrajudicially is warranted in many cases. In recent years, US governors have granted clemency, for example, to death-row inmates whose claims of innocence were not heard by the justice system, even though they had been exonerated by DNA testing.

Last summer, Barbour was hailed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as a "shining example" for commuting the life sentences of two African-American women who had spent 16 years in prison for an armed robbery that yielded $11.

“Pardoning power does have a certain value, and so do the innocence projects that have been set up across the nation, because it does permit a more careful after-the-fact examination of circumstances and evidence,” says Professor Winkle.

In Mr. Favre's case, he had been sentenced originally to a year of house arrest but was ordered to serve a suspended 15-year prison sentence after he left his house to go fishing. In pardoning Mr. Kambule, Barbour may have heeded pleas from his attorneys that there was no evidence that the then-teenager fired the fatal shots that killed a Madison County woman in 1996, a crime for which Kambule was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

"There are a whole lot of people in prison who should not be there," Chokwe Lumumba, a Jackson City councilman, told The Clarion-Ledger. "Obviously, murder is the kind of thing you put people in [prison] for ... but that doesn't mean that people cannot be rehabilitated."

Other Mississippians say Barbour simply went too far. "He will not comment on anything,” Tiffany Ellis Brewer, sister of the woman slain by the pardoned Mr. Gatlin, told CNN. “We have no answers as to why he has done this. I would like to think he did not have all of the facts of the case.... Apparently, we haven't had a really good man for our governor."

The sheer number and breadth of offenses has been difficult for both Republicans and Democrats to reconcile, especially coming as the last note of a governorship that received, on par, high marks, particularly for Barbour's work in helping Mississippi recover from hurricane Katrina in 2005.

News of the pardons immediately sparked a revival of two lingering House bills in Jackson. One would bar those convicted of capital murder from working in the Governor's Mansion, and the other would mandate public hearings before a felony offender could be pardoned by the governor, so that victims could have a say in the decision.

“It's created a buzz in Mississippi, and not a positive one for Haley as he goes out,” says Professor Wilkie, who has counted Barbour as a friend since the sixth grade. “There's a particularly good editorial cartoon in The Clarion-Ledger this morning that shows Haley in an airplane departing for Washington, flying over the state capitol and dumping these pardons and clemencies like so many bird droppings on the capitol.”


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