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. OWS

    As I have already previously posted, Why am I not surprised? Former Gov. Haley Barbour is an extreme right-wing radicalized Republican. Mississippi is a "Red" State. The people of Mississippi are not well-educated enough to know what goes on behind closed doors. If they only knew how much BIG, FAT REPUBLICAN $$$$ Former Gov. Haley Barbour amassed for pardoning or granting clemency before leaving office, maybe, and ONLY MAYBE then Mississippi would wake up and realize, along with all those other "Red" states just how CROOKED OUR POLITICIANS REALLY ARE !!!!

    Oh and BTW, I am neither a right-wing radicalized Republican nor a left-wing liberal Democrat. I am registered solely as an Independent. I only wish former Governor of the great state of Minnesota, and former decorated US Navy SEAL, Jesse Ventura, were running for Commander in Chief.

    Jesse would be the only one to get this nation back on track !!!!

    January 12, 2012 at 10:53 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • bill

      Jesse Ventura much like you is a wack job.

      January 12, 2012 at 11:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Mike S.

      I acutally don't think that his political party has anything to do with his pardons. Neither do you? It is within his power and it is within the Federal laws to allow governors the right to do what he did. Maybe he knows something that we don't about the ones that he released. The Republicans can be blamed for lots of problems but following the laws of the land on this one is not the GOP's fault. Change the laws if he was wrong but for now judge you are wrong to stop his rule.

      January 12, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Grace

      It may be true that Mississippians don't have a good education system and that we have many social issues, but don't you dare say that we are inherently less intelligent than anyone else. I am an extremely well-educated, open-minded Mississippian woman who is deeply offended by your hasty generalization of us. It's people like you who are more caught up in preserving bad stereotypes who are the problem. My family and I have voted against Barbour every election, we have worked for racial reconciliation, and we have volunteered in our failing school system. We know that these pardons are ridiculous, and I see what you're trying to articulate, but there are a lot of people trying to turn this state around. When you cast us off as a useless "red" state, you are giving up hope to change that. And if you're so much better educated than we are, then why is your comment irrelevant and full of elementary abbreviations? "$$$$"? Really?

      January 12, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Pop

    Thanks to the Supreme Court, laws don't matter anymore if you are a member of a religion, so let's not only release those guys but everyone else. Laws don't matter anymore! It is truly liberating!

    All you have to do is express your religion to avoid having to follow any laws now!
    Join my religion! It is the Only True Religion that ever was! All the others are fake!

    January 12, 2012 at 11:27 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • michael

      Some may wonder how the pattern of pardons plays out along racial lines. Facts and data are needed. The press seems not yet to have raised the issue of the racial data. Percentage of black/white who get to work in Barbour's residence and so percentages of black/whie pardoned?

      January 12, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Portland tony

    Don't know the facts concerning the cases. I guess the outgoing governor does though. But I do know that certain states consider all murder cases the same. For example, a person who shoots a man he finds in bed with his wife is treated the same sentencing wise as the man who shoots a clerk in cold blood in a convenience store robbery. Now they both killed someone, yet which of the two is likely to commit the same crime if freed? They both should do jail time, but one deserves compassion, I would think. 50 years ago, a man who shot his wife's lover would walk in most states.

    January 12, 2012 at 11:35 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • Grace

      Neither of them should be permitted to have a gun, though. And neither should have the murders completely removed from your records. These pardons aren't compassion; they're irresponsible.

      January 12, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Report abuse |
  4. thomas

    Soe much for the lie that it's the Democrats who are soft on crime!

    January 12, 2012 at 11:37 am | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Robert O.

    What else do you expect from Republicans who are soft on crime? Remember 9/11 – the second-worst crime ever committed on US soil after the Confederate secession? A Republican President gave him an eight-year de-facto pardon when he sent the US military into Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. And it took a Democratic President to finally bring the criminal to justice, along with thousands of terrorists in AfPak and Yemen. Republicans are tough on the poor and middle class; and soft on crime.

    January 12, 2012 at 11:53 am | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Mike S.

    Why do we even bother to have governors, presidents or other leaders. Just stop elections and let the judges and supreme courts and ACLU rule this nation. They do anyway. Right or wrong – it is within his power to do what he did.

    January 12, 2012 at 11:58 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • PraiseTheLard

      Well, someone's got to protect this country from stupid governors and the idiot voters who put them in power...

      January 12, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Report abuse |
  7. hamsta

    Guess the moderators cant handle the truth they closed the last topic after my comment about vladimir dracuka.maybe they just need to quit reporting on our military supposedly abusing terrorists.

    January 12, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • nsaidi

      Nah, I'm all good with the "truth," whatever that might be. It's more like we got hit with a surge of posts that had nothing to do with the story. That is why comments were turned off.

      January 12, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Barbour-ian

    A remarkably heinous example of disgusting republican hypocrisy. How does this kind of monster win an election?

    January 12, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • PraiseTheLard

      Stupid voters... this country is founded on exploiting ignorance...

      January 12, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Kenny

    After this Mississippi fiasco one can say it's not about the law. I guess it all boils down to the old saying: "It's not what you know. It's who you know." People like "BOSS HOG" Barbour and others like him are trying their best to take this country back to the 1940's and 50's.

    January 12, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Emperor Norton

    This entire thing sounds like the background to a film noir. A murderer, inexplicably freed from a long sentence in federal court, is picked up when he kills again. A crusading private detective must find out the dark secret that resulted in the murderer's release from prison, and what ties he has to the former governor.

    January 12, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Philip

    Just pardon everyone and start all over again. I give it three weeks to get back to where it was.

    January 12, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Shelock Holmes

    Hello? Wots this? I dare say there may very well be clues to be found inside of Mr. Barbers lower intestines. Wake me after the autopsy would you. Watson! My nightgown.

    January 12, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  13. hamsta

    @robert o-by your logic pearl harbor gave us no reason to enter ww2 and go after hitler.

    January 12, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Hoodie

      Reading comprehension not your strong point? More like invading Sweden to go after Hitler. Excellent for hamsta "logic" I suppose.

      January 12, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
  14. hamsta

    The lawmakers have something better to do than force schools in california to teach gay history.or is that they want to force everyone to be gay by putting bubba on the street.soldiers urinating on terrorists isnt shocking but allowing murderers rapists and child molestors free is more than shocking, itsinsane.the lawmakers need to stop worrying about the dumb stuff and write a law stating murderers rapists and child molestors can not be pardoned.

    January 12, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Jeff Frank (R-Ohio Prefecture) "Right Wing Insanity"

    Falsly accused? Hung jurys? Tampered evidence? False charges? False sentencings? Innocent people incarcerated now RUN IN PACKS? Almost 200, including murderers?

    January 12, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse | Reply
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