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Mississippi Supreme Court Upholds Outgoing Governor's 214 Messy Pardons

Two months of political gamesmanship and blustery media coverage came to an end on March 8 when the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld more than 200 pardons granted by Haley Barbour in his final days as governor.

The court ruled, 6-3, that the pardons "may not be set aside or voided by the judicial branch," even though, as state Attorney General Jim Hood argued, proper notice wasn't posted publicly. The final decision to grant pardons, the court found, rested "solely with the governor."

The pardons, announced about a week before Barbour left office in January at the end of his second term, were met with outrage. The anger centered on the release of four men who lived and worked as trusties at the governor's mansion in Jackson. All four-David Gatlin, Charles Hooker, Anthony McCray, and Joseph Ozment- were serving life sentences for murder.

Cable news' most vocal opponent of the pardons was CNN's Anderson Cooper, who called them "stunning." After the court affirmed Barbour's executive privilege, Cooper commiserated on-air with Gatlin's former mother-in-law- whose daughter he murdered in 1993- hissing, "(the governor) didn't think about your daughter" before pardoning Gatlin.

Self-righteous politicians piled on, as well. "This is just shocking," said state Rep. David Baria, a Democrat, after he drafted a bill that would check the governor's power to pardon.

Even fellow Republicans second-guessed Barbour, the formerly portentous chairman of the Republican National Committee and once considered a GOP 2012 presidential contender.

"I would never support freeing murderers." said Republican state Rep. Carolyn Crawford. "This is something that needs to change."

Barbour told reporters at a hastily-arranged press conference after the initial controversy that the pardons were rooted in the Christian concept of forgiveness. "I believe in second chances," he said, "and I try hard to be forgiving." He also noted that of 214 people he pardoned, 188 had long since been released from prison. And half of those who were still incarcerated were being mercifully released for medical reasons.

About the pardoned trusties, Barbour said he'd let his grandchildren "play with these men." His successor, however, apparently will not be organizing play dates between his offspring and prisoners. Through an executive order, Republican Phil Bryant ended the trusty program at the governor's mansion within the first week of his administration.

"As governor, Bryant first discontinued the practice of (prisoners) spending the night on the mansion grounds, and then the tradition of pardoning those individuals," Bryant spokesman Mick Bullock said.

Hood, the state attorney general, had argued that Mississippi's Constitution required that pardons he published for 30 days in local newspapers before they were deemed officially valid. But the court sided with Barbour's lawyers, who maintained that the 30-day notice rule was "an unconstitutional encroachment" on the governor's power.

Despite Barbour's legal victory, some worry that the mass pardons, including many to celebrities and families of Barbour's political supporters, might have harmed the institution of clemency going forward. If the pardons had been granted gradually over the eight years of Barbour's governorship, there would have been "zero controversy," said P.S. Ruckman, a political science professor at Rock Valley College in Illinois and author of two books on executive clemency.

"It's too bad the way he's done this," Ruckman said. "It just casts a shadow over the whole process."'

Barbour said in a statement after the court's ruling that "pardons are always subject to a lot of criticism and are generally unpopular."

"Nevertheless," he said, "these were decisions based on repentance, rehabilitation, and redemption, leading to forgiveness and the right defined and given by the state constitution to the governor to offer such people a second chance." See: In re Hooker, 87 So.3d 401 (Miss. 2012).


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Related legal case

In re Hooker