For most of the last two decades, Haley Barbour was a model Republican able to appeal to social and fiscal conservatives alike. He led the GOP’s charge against Bill Clinton’s scandals, raised buckets of money for countless conservative causes, and rallied Mississippi back from Hurricane Katrina with little of the drama of neighboring New Orleans.
But in his final hours in office as Mississippi governor this month, Barbour tarnished his own legacy as well as the GOP’s law-and-order image with more than 200 pardons, including a dozen convicted murderers, more than a dozen people convicted of manslaughter and homicide, several rapists, and a slew of robbers and drug dealers.
The act stunned Republicans and Democrats alike, forced a court to put some pardons on hold, and created a new debate over pardoning and furloughing criminals that the national GOP isn’t eager to engage in as it heads into the 2012 election.
“Any of these men could turn out to be Barbour’s Willie Horton,” says Martin Wiseman, the director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, referring to an infamous TV commercial in the 1988 presidential race. The commercial showcased the story of Willie Horton, a felon who was serving a life sentence for murder when he received a weekend furlough in Massachusetts and did not return to jail, later committing rape, armed robbery, and assault. Horton’s case became a millstone around Democrat Michael Dukakis’s presidential ambitions that year.
Now Republicans, who could rely for years on Barbour to say and do the right things, are struggling to devise a defense for his last-minute decisions.
“He’s the mentor, the godfather of the Republican Party–it was heresy for a Republican to be critical of Haley Barbour,” Wiseman says. “But they can’t defend this.”
Democrats are seizing the moment.
“It is like he was Pontius Pilate giving a thumbs up to Barabbas and a thumbs down to Jesus,” says Rickey Cole, the executive director of the Mississippi state Democratic Party. “It is unquestionably one of the greatest political furors that I have seen in 30 years.”
The religious analogy may seem a tad over the top, but Mississippi is one of the most religious, conservative, and Republican states in the nation and Barbour himself has invoked religion as part of his rationale for making the pardons.
“I have no doubt in my mind that these men have repented,” Barbour said in an appearance on Fox News.
At a news conference last week Barbour said the idea of giving pardons is “rooted in the Christian idea of giving second chances.” He also said part of his rationale for the pardons was so that the convicted felons could vote and obtain hunting licenses, which would allow them to carry firearms.
However, Barbour also admitted there is a chance that some of those pardoned will commit future crimes. “I’m not saying I’ll be perfect, that nobody who received clemency will ever do nothing wrong. I’m not infallible,” Barbour told reporters. “But I am very comfortable and totally at peace with these pardons.”
One of the most vocal critics has been Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, the state’s highest ranking Democrat, who obtained all of the criminals’ records from current Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who was sworn in last week. Hood and his staff are currently reviewing the records in an effort to overturn as many of the pardons as possible. “He ought to be ashamed,” Hood said of Barbour in a news conference last week
There are a few wealthy and well connected names on the list, including Karen Irby, a Mississippi socialite who was convicted of two counts of manslaughter in the deaths of two doctors in a drunken-driving accident. Barbour granted her clemency and shortened her 18-year sentence, ordering that instead she serve three years' house arrest.
Another of those pardoned was Ernest Favre, the brother of former NFL quarterback Brett Favre, who killed his best friend in a drunken-driving accident.
Cole speculates that one reason there were so many names on the pardon list was to distract from some of the well connected like Irby and Favre. “It simply does not pass the smell test,” Cole says.
A Mississippi judge has ruled that all of those pardoned must show up in court on Jan. 23 and prove that they met the state requirements for receiving a pardon. He also blocked the release of those still remaining in prison.
Mississippi law requires that anyone seeking a pardon must publish notice in a newspaper in the same county where their crime took place 30 days before the pardon is granted.
“We have to go back and try to round up all of these convicts that have been turned loose and try to fix the mess that he’s created,” Hood said in a news conference about Barbour’s actions. The Mississippi Clarion Ledger newspaper has reported that Hood’s office believes at least 140 of the pardons may not be valid and could be overturned.
The pardons were granted in Barbour’s last week in office, many in his last hours. A majority of those pardoned had already been released from prison but about 20 remain incarcerated.
Bryant, the new governor who was left to deal with the resulting furor, said he believes Mississippi law should be reviewed and has asked state lawmakers to consider whether an amendment to the state Constitution limiting the executive branch's pardon powers should be enacted. Bryant also said that he plans significant changes to a program that allows convicted felons to work at the governor’s mansion, and plans to discontinue the practice of convicts spending the night on mansion grounds, and is "working towards phasing out" the use of any violent offenders at the mansion.
Several Mississippi state legislators have drafted bills to prevent violent offenders from working at the governor’s mansion as a result of the Barbour pardons.
Barbour pardoned four murderers and one burglar who had served in the mansion trustee program where he had gotten to know them. At his press conference Barbour said, “I let my grandchildren play with these five men … I have no question in my mind that these five guys are not a threat to society.”