Mississippi burning over Haley Barbour

  • Article by: SUSAN HOGAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 15, 2012 - 5:47 PM

Before he left office, the high-profile Republican governor pardoned murders, and now has a lucrative speaking gig.

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Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour

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Only a few months ago, many Republicans were clamoring for Haley Barbour to jump into the presidential race. This is the Mississippi governor who recently pardoned more than 200 criminals, including convicted killers, in his final days of office.

This is also the governor I carped about last year for refusing to denounce a Ku Klux Klan effort to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War with commemorative KKK license plates. Turns out, that was not the worst of it.

Barbour, 64, decided not seek the White House and appears to have instead focused some of his energy on getting thugs and murderers out of the big house. Among these were 14 people convicted of manslaughter or murder, some of whom worked at the governor’s mansion.

The brother of former Vikings quarterback Brett Favre, a Mississippi native, was among the convicts whose slate was wiped clean. Earnest Scott Favre had killed a friend in a 1996 drunk driving accident.

The New York Times took note. In describing Barbour's national stature in the GOP, the Times said he was "to Republican politics what fellow Mississippian … Favre was to football, down to the questionable endgame.”

Eight of the murderers pardoned had killed their wives or girlfriends. Killer David Glenn Gatlin shot his estranged wife while she was holding their infant son. Killer Anthony McCray shot his wife in the back.

The pardons shocked and angered Mississippians, who only two months ago bestowed the two-term governor with a 60 percent approval rating. Now, Barbour’s name evokes disdain locally, and has given the state a black eye nationally.

In talking to CNN, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood invoked a villainous character from the Dukes of Hazzard to describe the former governor. “He kind of ran the state like Boss Hogg — he didn’t think the law applied to him,” Hood said.

Twenty-six of the 215 people pardoned were still incarcerated. The rest had completed their sentences, Hood said. Still, he said, “it’s caused a public safety issue.” Some victims’ families and those that testified against the prisoners are now fearing for their lives.

Most state constitutions give governors significant powers to grant pardons to people convicted of crimes in their states. Fortunately, Mississippi has an unusual provision in its constitution that could mean Barbour’s pardons won’t stick – at least some of them.

The provision says that clemency can’t be granted unless the pardon application was published in a newspaper for 30 days beforehand. A judge blocked some of the pardons and ruled that the inmates not yet released must remain in prison until it can be determined which pardons are valid.

In the meantime, Hood is worried that some of the released murders have already hightailed it out of the state. A nationwide manhunt may be in order, he says.

It’s worth remembering in this sad episode that a pardon means the individuals can go about life as if they’d never been arrested. Buy a gun? Sure. They have every right under the law now because of Barbour's actions.

As for Barbour, he’s signed on to do lucrative speaking engagements managed by Leading Authorities, a well-known national agency. Last week, he spoke at an event in Miami organized by Barclays Bank.

As for the uproar over the pardons, Barbour has tried to appease his critics by invoking religion. “Christianity teaches us forgiveness and second chances,” he said at a news conference.

Barbour set the captives free, and now we’re holding our breath hoping no one loses a life because of his recklessness.

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Susan Hogan is a Star Tribune editorial writer.

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