Mississippi judge halts release of 21 prisoners Gov. Barbour pardoned

The Biloxi Sun HeraldJanuary 12, 2012 

JACKSON — Attorney General Jim Hood says former Gov. Haley Barbour appears to have violated the state Constitution with many of the dozens of pardons he granted convicted criminals in his last days in office.

A Hinds County judge on Wednesday night halted the release of 21 prisoners Barbour ordered freed who had not yet been released.

Hood is asking the court to void improper pardons -- he’s unsure how many there are exactly and has his staff and local prosecutors and law enforcement researching -- to halt the release of those still locked up and require those on the loose to show up and prove their cases.

Barbour granted clemency, including dozens of full pardons, to more than 200 convicted criminals in his last days in office, causing an uproar with victims’ families, the public and lawmakers.

Barbour said in a statement Wednesday that he believes people have misunderstood why he gave reprieves to more than 200 inmates. Most received full pardons, while others received suspended sentences because of medical conditions.

“Approximately 90 percent of these individuals were no longer in custody, and a majority of them had been out for years,” Barbour said. “The pardons were intended to allow them to find gainful employment or acquire professional licenses as well as hunt and vote. My decision about clemency was based upon the recommendation of the Parole Board in more than 90 percent of the cases. The 26 people released from custody due to clemency is just slightly more than one-tenth of 1 percent of those incarcerated.

“Half of the people who were incarcerated and released were placed on indefinite suspension due to medical reasons because their health care expenses while incarcerated were costing the state so much money. These individuals suffer from severe chronic illnesses, are on dialysis, in wheelchairs or are bedridden. They are not threats to society but if any of them commits an offense -- even a misdemeanor -- they’ll be returned to custody to serve out their term.

The Mississippi Constitution says any inmate seeking a pardon must publish notice about his intentions for 30 days in a newspaper in or near the county where the person was convicted before a pardon is granted.

Hood said it appears numerous convicts did not meet the publishing requirement. He said some appear to have run ads for less than 30 days; some appeared to have not run any at all.

“Some are even just publishing now,” Hood said. “The Constitution is clear -- no pardon until after 30 days … Unfortunately Gov. Barbour didn’t read the Constitution.”

Hood said that five people released over the weekend -- four murderers and one robber -- are among those who did not meet the publishing requirement. Mississippi Department of Corrections spokeswoman Suzanne Singletary told the Associated Press the five inmates let out over the weekend are the only ones on Barbour’s list who had been released as of Wednesday evening. She said about 21 inmates who received pardons or early release were still waiting to get out. Processing paperwork generally takes several days because, among other things, the department has to give victims 48 hours’ notice before an inmate is released.

“We are looking at each pardon, but have already found cases where this requirement was not met,” said Hood. “For the safety of all our residents and for the sanctity of our Constitution, we had to request the injunction. Each of these individuals will have a day in court to show that they have met the necessary requirements. If they have not, then we will ask the court” to void those pardons.

In a meeting with the media, Hood lambasted Barbour for his last-minute clemency orders.

“It is a shame and he ought to be ashamed,” Hood said “… It’s a slap in the face to me as a prosecutor for over 20 years.”

“This governor abused his office several times -- like his use of the state airplane -- but this is the worst thing I’ve ever seen … He’s turned more prisoners out than any governor I’ve ever heard of.”

Hood said Barbour’s former counsel refused to turn over records on the pardons, but that new Gov. Phil Bryant stepped in and made the records available.

Bryant spokesman Mick Bullock on Wednesday said: “Gov. Bryant’s policy on pardoning of violent offenders will be only when clear evidence becomes available that the individual has been wrongly convicted. Further, Gov. Bryant has directed his staff to turn over to the attorney general all files related to the pardons issued recently by Gov. Haley Barbour.”

Lawmakers -- from both side of the aisle -- are drafting or contemplating legislation to reduce the governor’s clemency powers or reform the process. There have been similar efforts in recent years, but they say public outrage over Barbour’s last-minute reprieves for so many criminals ensures something will pass.

“I am shocked and sickened and I can’t even find the right adjective for how I feel,” said state Sen. Billy Hudson, R-Hattiesburg. “I’ve already been to the legal office and have them working on a bill I can file -- it’s probably going to take a constitutional amendment … This needs to change.”

Rep. Billy Broomfield, D-Moss Point, said: “(Barbour’s clemency) is the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever seen somebody who is supposed to be responsible do. It’s just a travesty of justice to have the governor release that many people back into society -- most with a clean slate so now they can carry a weapon and all other rights. The Legislature has, no question, got to address this.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

To read more, visit www.sunherald.com.

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