January 12th, 2012
10:37 AM ET

What's behind the battle over Mississippi governor's pardons?

Editor's note: CNN Senior Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin weighs in to help explain the details of a battle brewing after former Republican Gov. Haley Barbour approved full pardons for nearly 200 people.

The announcement that outgoing Gov. Haley Barbour approved full pardons for nearly 200 people, including 14 murderers, has sparked an angry reaction.

Among those pardoned, four convicted murderers and a convicted armed robber have already been released. A judge issued a temporary injunction forbidding the release of any more prisoners Barbour pardoned or gave clemency to before leaving office this week. A circuit court judge issued an injunction, saying it appeared that some pardons, including those for four murderers, did not meet the state's requirement that pardon requests be published 30 days before they are granted.

We've asked CNN Senior Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin to help explain what Barbour did, the criticism he's drawn, and what his actions could mean for those pardoned and for the public.

Q: What is an unconditional pardon? Does it mean that you are fully cleared? Would a background check still reveal your record?

Toobin: A pardon is essentially equivalent to never having been charged at all. You are fully cleared. You can vote and buy guns and do anything else a nonconvict can.

The background check issue is more complicated. It probably varies by state, and by how thorough the checks are.

Q: How often are unconditional pardons given?

Toobin: They are rare, but virtually all governors (and presidents) pardon some people. A group this large is very rare, and Barbour pardoned many more people than most governors. Pardons are often done at the end of a term, when the voters cannot retaliate.

President Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich, a fugitive financier, was very controversial. Likewise, Mike Huckabee's pardons of individuals who went on to commit terrible crimes were big issues. In most states, and the federal government, no reason need be given for a pardon.

Q: What is the concern the attorney general has about the pardons?

Toobin: The basic claim is that at least some of these people are still too dangerous to be released. Their crimes were too horrific to merit the extraordinary gift of a pardon.

In technical legal terms, the AG claims that Barbour violated the provision of the Mississippi Constitution that says an applicant for a pardon must publish his request in a local newspaper at least 30 days before the governor may grant a pardon. There will be a court hearing on January 23 to determine if those newspaper notices were published for all the pardoned convicts.

Q: Do I have the right to know if I am, for example, working with a convicted murderer?

Toobin: It's true that the crime victims are the most outraged, for understandable reasons.

Others are also concerned that there is a problem of cronyism here - that Barbour pardoned convicts who worked in his mansion, not those who were the most deserving.

If these pardons hold up, there will be no requirement that these former prisoners disclose to anyone that they were formerly in prison. Their neighbors and co-workers may never know, which of course is a cause for concern.

Q: Do you know of any case(s) where a governor has issued an unconditional pardon that was legally challenged and overturned? 

Toobin:  There may have been some pardons in history that have been overturned, but I am unaware of any. It's one of the oldest powers of heads of state, going back to before the American Revolution. Historically, it has been an absolute unreviewable power. It cannot be overturned by the legislature or any court.

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Filed under: Courts • Crime • Justice • Mississippi
soundoff (135 Responses)
  1. joesmith

    well, one would observe, if you murder another indvidual, and are convicted of same..and have been given a life term..then you need to be in solitary confinement, not trimming the hedge at the Governors mansion.. and the State whose Governor pulled this off needs to convene an executive session, and immediately reassess the legalize on their books..and change it..in the old days, it's called taxation, without representation..

    January 13, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  2. R J

    Some people seem to think that some of these convicts were already out. That's not true especially for those who were convicted of murder. They received pardons and were released from prison.

    Barbour is a real tool. He did not grant pardons to the two sisters but he grants unconditional pardons to many who committed murder. WOW!

    January 13, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  3. lfnjr

    Pardons should be illegal. No man (or woman) should have the power to overturn these convictions without review. Scum releasing scum. A situation ripe for bribery.

    February 7, 2012 at 5:12 am | Report abuse | Reply
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