Vague advice threatens dozens of Barbour's pardons

January 20, 2012 - 7:25 PM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — In the legal showdown over the convicted killers pardoned by former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, dozens of people who served time years ago for lesser crimes could lose the chance to clear their records because the state Parole Board and local newspapers provided vague advice about how to properly notify the public.

Parole Board chairwoman Shannon Warnock told The Associated Press on Friday that she "informally" told people seeking pardons to publish notices "for a month" in newspapers in the areas where they were convicted, as required by the state Constitution. But Warnock said some weekly newspapers told applicants they could publish once a week for four weeks.

Attorney General Jim Hood contends once-a-week publication for four weeks doesn't meet the Constitution's requirement of publication for 30 days.

It's not clear how many people failed to meet the requirement because of the vague advice, but the ones most likely affected were already out of prison, some for decades. Media coverage has focused on the pardons that Barbour gave to convicted killers and others serving long sentences, a fraction of his nearly 200 pardons.

Hood's office said Friday that only 25 people pardoned by Barbour met the notification requirements; 10 more are under review. Most of those who met the requirements were convicted of lesser crimes such as drug charges, burglary or embezzlement. One was convicted of kidnapping, one of murder, two for DUI death and one for vehicular homicide.

The list of 25 does not include the four convicted killers and the robber who worked as trusties at the Governor's Mansion and were freed by Barbour in his final days.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections made arrangements to publish notices for them and a handful of other inmates. But Hood said they didn't run for 30 days before Barbour signed the pardons. In one case, a newspaper didn't publish the notice at all because it never received payment.

A hearing is set for Monday in Hinds County Circuit Court on Hood's request to block dozens of pardons.

Barbour, a Republican who ended his second term Jan. 10, was strongly criticized by victims' families and state Democrats because some of the people he pardoned had been convicted of violent crimes. One trusty pardoned by Barbour was convicted of fatally shooting his estranged wife in 1993 as she held their baby and shooting her male friend in the head; the friend survived.

Hood, the lone Democrat in statewide office, challenged those pardons in court Jan. 11. He filed an amended complaint this week seeking to block dozens of other pardons.

Many of those people were convicted decades ago of comparatively minor crimes, like marijuana possession or burglary. They sought a pardon to clean up their records in hopes of getting better jobs, being able to vote, or just for the satisfaction of wiping out their criminal record. Some of the crimes for which people were pardoned date back to the 1960s and 1970s. Some haven't been in trouble since then. When they applied for a pardon, they usually met with the Parole Board to discuss what they needed to do.

Friday, Warnock responded to questions about people who told the AP they were afraid of losing their pardons even though they followed the board's advice.

"I can confirm that. I informally said to publish for a month and you need to publish in the county in which you were convicted. A lot of people then followed the advice and counsel of the weekly newspapers (in their towns), which was to publish once a week for four weeks," Warnock said.

She had no further comment.

Section 124 of the Mississippi Constitution says that in felony cases no pardon "shall be granted until the applicant therefor shall have published for thirty days, in some newspaper in the county where the crime was committed, and in the case there be no newspaper published in said county, then in an adjoining county ..."

"The law clearly says 30 days. Four weeks is only 28 days," Hood said.

The Mississippi law does not mention weekly newspapers.

Barbour issued about 200 "full, complete and unconditional" pardons during his two terms, with 198 of them in his final days in office. They included 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. Those being released for medical reasons or who received suspended sentences or conditional clemency did not need to publish notices in newspapers.

Meeting with reporters, Barbour last week stressed that 189 of the people who received clemency were already out of prison and some had been for years. Barbour has said his pardons are legal and accused Hood of partisan politics.

Whatever the case, changes already are being made.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said Thursday through a spokesman that he has phased out the trusty program at the Governor's Mansion. He has also said he has no intentions to grant pardons.

Bryant and his wife, Deborah, plan to move into the mansion in about two months, after renovations are finished.

Trusties traditionally have done odd jobs around the mansion, including cooking, cleaning and serving food. They're chosen by the state Department of Corrections and are typically pardoned or given other relief, such as a suspended sentence, when a governor leaves office.

Bryant, a Republican and former deputy sheriff, said last week that he'd stop the practice of using violent offenders as mansion trusties and that trusties would no longer spend the night on mansion grounds. He took that a step further Thursday by ending the mansion trusty program.

P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political science professor at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill., has studied presidential and gubernatorial pardons. He said Barbour issued an unusually high number. Ruckman said one way to improve Mississippi's gubernatorial pardon system would be to eliminate the practice of having some inmates work as mansion trusties.

"It gives them access to the governor and a chance to know him personally," Ruckman said. "Let's just pretend it does give the governor some type of superhuman insight into whether they've changed. That's still unfair to the other prisoners who are similarly situated but don't have access to the governor."

State Sen. Deborah Dawkins, D-Pass Christian, said Friday that Barbour pardoned too many people, including violent offenders, "with very negative consequences." But she said Bryant is overreacting by saying he plans to issue no pardons.

"It seems like overkill to me, which is not uncommon with Gov. Bryant," Dawkins said.

She said Bryant, who campaigned on controlling state spending, will probably increase Governor's Mansion expenses because he'll need paid staff to replace the free labor that trusties have provided.

Bryant spokesman Mick Bullock on Friday said no decision has been made about whether to hire additional mansion staff.

Bullock said, "Since the mansion will be closed for the next two months for structural repairs, Gov. Bryant will use this time to re-evaluate staffing needs for the facility."