Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour invoked his Christian belief in forgiveness and his childhood experiences with a convict named Leon Turner to explain why he granted clemency to 215 convicts just before he left office, including 17 murderers.
The former governor answered questions about the pardons for the first time Friday, three days after he created a furor when he filed the pardons and sentence commutations with the Secretary of State’s Office, then exited the political stage.
Barbour said he has been out of town. He knew victims’ families would be rightfully upset, he said, but he had no idea politics would be injected into his pardons decisions. He did not know the public would have the impression he let 215 inmates out of prison.
Barbour wanted most of all to stress that only 26 convicts granted clemency were still in state custody, and 13 of those were very ill. Four of the five murderers worked as trusties in the governor’s office. He intended all along to pardon them, he said, if they finished out his second term.
“Let me make one point very plain: Mississippians are mostly Christians,” Barbour said. “We have Jews, Hindus, Muslims and people from other faiths, just like we have atheists and agnostics. But most Mississippians profess to be Christians of some kind.
“Marsha and I are evangelical Christians, Presbyterians. Christianity teaches us forgiveness and second chances. I believe in second chances. And I try hard to be forgiving.
“The historical power of 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 nobody who received clemency will ever do anything wrong. I’m not infallible and nobody else is.
“But I am very comfortable and totally at peace with these pardons, including those at the mansion.”
The governor paused to gain his composure before he discussed Leon Turner, an inmate he grew to love. Barbour was 10 years old when his father died. His grandfather, who raised the Barbour boys, developed a neurological disease that cost him the use of his legs.
Because Barbour’s grandfather was a Circuit Court judge, Gov. Paul B. Johnson had an inmate, Turner, dispatched to help the family.
“When my older brothers and I were growing up, and our cousins, like federal Judge William Barbour, Leon took care of us,” Barbour said. “He helped raise us. He was our playmate, our friend.
“My grandmother built him a house for his old age, and his wife’s old age. I watched the power of a second chance and what it did for Leon Turner.”
He said the five inmates who served him in the governor’s mansion, four of them murderers, have played with his grandchildren and even watched them while they rode tricycles in the driveway. Historically, he said, murderers are trusties at the mansion because, experts say, their crimes of passion are unlikely to be repeated.
“I have no question in my mind,” he said, “that these guys are not a threat to society.”
He believes that Attorney General Jim Hood, the only Democrat in statewide office, has sued to stop inmate releases purely because of politics. Hood has said he wants to protect the public. He has gone to court to challenge Barbour’s pardons, saying many convicts appeared to not meet a requirement to publish notice of their clemency requests.
Barbour said that Hood never said a word when Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, Barbour’s predecessor, pardoned a convict who was released without public notice. The man pardoned by Musgrove had been convicted of felony possession of marijuana. It was Musgrove’s only pardon.
Barbour said he also was taken aback because the public was led to believe 215 inmates had been released.
Barbour’s office delivered the executive pardon orders to Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann so they could be duly recorded before the new governor, Phil Bryant, took office Tuesday at noon. Barbour said he wanted to get out of the new governor’s way, as politicians he admires have done when they leave office.
Hosemann’s staff took the orders, scanned them into a computer and generated a list of all the inmates. In the interest of public disclosure, a spokesperson has said, they were put on the secretary of state’s web site.
“I tell you what I would have done differently,” Barbour said in response to a reporter’s question. “I would have gotten out of the governor’s way on Tuesday, but I would have been on top of what was being published by the Secretary of State’s Office and quickly let people know, ‘Wait a minute, 189 of these people were already out, most of them for a long time, some for years and years.”
He said he also wishes the public notices of releases had been delivered sooner to newspapers in communities where inmates were convicted for the required 30 days of publication. Because of schedules at each newspaper, some notices did not meet the publication requirements.
“I can’t tell you that one person out of these 215 won’t do something wrong,” Barbour concluded. “But I am very comfortable with this and most comfortable with the people who were in the mansion.”
And then, having answered all the questions he intended to entertain, Barbour cut off the session, saying, “Thank y’all.”
Geoff Pender contributed to this report.