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. Lookidat

    OWS, you are an idiot. You assume that Mississippi is populated solely with tobacco-spittin, in-breeding, gap-toothed, rednecks. AND, for some reason, you are indignant that Mississippi is a "red" state. While you claim to be an independent, your rant sure sounds like the self-righteous arrogance of a liberal. I too, do not claim either party, but I admit to leaning more right than left. That said, let me try to educate you. In deference to you, I will type s-l-o-w-l-y. First of all, most residents of Ms (myself included), regardless of our political leanings, are outraged at the release of these criminals. During his term in office, Barbour did a lot of good, however, it was overshadowed by these, and previous pardons he has given out. I will agree with you that there may be something else going on here, be it bribes, extortion, or whatever, and hopefully it will be revealed. Secondly, ALL politicians, left and right, are of questionable character. Neither party has a monopoly on corruption and ignorance. As far as Ms being a "red" state, what does it matter? As long as the obsolete Electoral College system is in effect, our few votes don't mean squat. It is the metropolitan/urban areas that control the national electorate. Now, Robert O, I can't let you have a pass on your ignorance either. As I recall, a Republican president first invaded the home of the 911 perpetrators, Afghanistan. Going into Iraq when we did, in retrospect may have not been a good idea, although I believe it would have had to happen sooner or later. As far as Obama "getting" Bin Laden, that is simply a matter of time, ability, and opportunity coming together. It would not have mattered who was in office. Obama didn't "get Bin Laden", a brave bunch of SEALs did. (It was also a brave bunch of SEALs who ended the pirate situation while "No Drama Obama" wrung his hands and hoped it would go away. As far as Republicans being tough on middle class and poor, I agree that both parties are tough on the middle class, and that the truly rich should be toting more of their share in taxes, however, our Democratic president wants me to pay more taxes that he can use to buy the vote of every dopehead, lazy slacker, illegal immigrant and anyone else representing a drag on society, so that he can stay in power and continue to wreck this country. I hope that ya'll can understand my simple explanations, after all, I am just a "dumb redneck from Mississippi"

    January 12, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • MississippiBoy

      I'm a born an bred Mississippian and know this state quite well. This is the kind of thing that does make us look like "Mississippi is populated solely with tobacco-spittin, in-breeding, gap-toothed, rednecks.", and I don't blame anyone for thinking so. How could anyone pardon someone like Karen Irby? Burn in hell Haley right along with the evil you set loose in society again.

      January 12, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Judith

      The fact is that he had actually agreed to the release of twenty people, the others pardoned were not in any prison or jail.

      January 12, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Common Sense

      When you say you "lean to the right" did you forget to finish that sentence. I'm thinking should read "lean to the right of Genghis Khan"

      January 12, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Albro

    This governor seems to think that the state is his personal property, to do with as he wishes. I'd like to see the ciitzens raise the legal question of whether they can sue barbour for damages caused by these released criminals future crimes, if any, by reason of recklessness! Pardons are for deserving people, not as a 'cheap shot' when youor term ends!

    January 12, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  3. hamsta

    @nsaidi its a fact of war to be barbaric.trust me that when our soldiers are captured much worse is done to them than being urinated on.its time to stop demonizing the war effort and realize things worse than that will happen as these soldiers give their life just so u dont have to speak iranian.just be glad they arent resorting to vladimir draculas tactics.

    January 12, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  4. kev

    let them all go

    January 12, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  5. kev

    my mother is still in there help me somebody lol she be home in 2021 free her just for a pork butt that not right free mary bobo lol

    January 12, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Philip

    @Nicole Saidi. Hay! I had a good *microcosm* angle on the urinators. Like dogs marking their territory. As long as Carlyle Group oil flows through Afghanistan to China, it's America's business to be there. (Or at least the business of the men who used to run America and those in cahoots with them running Her now Yes, Obama is very well aware and approves) P/iss on 'em. Shop at Wal-Mart.

    January 12, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • nsaidi

      That is an interesting angle.

      January 12, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
  7. fernace

    I can't believe some people are actually defending Barbours "right" to release dangerous criminals! Just because it's his "right" to do so, doesn't make it right! It's a belitteling of the justice process & the plight of the victims! I don't believe any murder, even the murder of your wife & her lover, should get special consideration! Has the dude who did that heard of Divorce!? I still think this was Barbours way of thumbing his nose at voters who shot down his Fetus Personhood Bill! It's like he's saying: "No regard for "life" eh, see how y'all like living in a community full of murderers & violent criminals! My "gift" to the state of Mississippi, as I leave! Enjoy!" Truly mindboggling!!

    January 12, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  8. hamsta

    oh well guess ill see all of u later,im going to check the real news at fox.not that this particular subject isnt news,but demonizing the soldiers who fight for my freedom did it for me.

    January 12, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • JacsinJax

      Really? What does "demonizing the soldiers who fight for my freedom " have to do with legal questions regarding Haley Barbour's pardons? If your going to be closed minded, then at least take the time to find the right subject.

      January 12, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Philip

    @nsaidi. Surely you are fully aware of the Carlyle Group's activities... (The Group: George HW Bush, James Baker III, 26 members of the Bin Laden Family)...particularly from the time that The Group purchased the mineral rights to much of the Caspian Basin from the tiny little countries that formed after the Soviet Ubion fell. Understanding this Group's activities is central to understanding the situation in the middle east.

    January 12, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Olaf Big

    All the outrage about these pardons aside, I just don't understand why Barbour did it. Certainly not because of his big heart, but he does not stand to benefit from this in any way either. Must be all these people who know people adding a name here and there until the list landed on Barbour's desk with 200 names and he signed it without thinking. Welcome to the corridors of power...

    January 12, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  11. thegadfly

    If the pardoned individuals worked in the governor's mansion, there is good reason to wonder if they know something that Barbour doesn't want them talking about.

    January 12, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  12. noon

    cnn offers blogs, then doesn't post your comment

    January 12, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Andreas Moser

      You can go to my blog instead: http://www.andreasmoser.wordpress.com

      January 12, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Andreas Moser

    Pardon me.

    January 12, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  14. jc

    The law is the law peoples. Right or not they were pardonned and they are talking about fugitive warant? Lawyers are gona have a field day with that if they do.
    Don't take me wrong i don't approve that they got pardoned but they were. They are free point.
    The one they should sue/endite is the old dumb #&%* governor for not respecting the law.

    January 12, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Classic

      usually i don't say this, but...uh...i agree. wow, that wasn't so bad ;)

      January 12, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bermille

      Laws can be changed.

      January 12, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • JacsinJax

      The law is the law and did he follow the law? If not then the pardons are not valid. He knew the process and knew the press would jump on it. So why aren't people trying to figure out why Barbour did it knowing it would kill any future for him in politics, consulting or speaking for big bucks. Even if they are deemed valid, he's ended a career that he has spend his whole life building. Remember, he was considering running for president. He not only dropped out but went silent. The man has been flopping his mouth on any tv show that would have him for decades but haven't heard from him this whole primary. Why?

      January 12, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Pete/Ark

    @JacsinJaax : note Toobins comments about Mike Huckabee...his bad pardons had a negative impact on his whitehouse try...but he still ended up with a show on F-bomb network,giant speaking fees,and a beach front mansion. Users use every angle they can get...how many states don't even have the routine safeguards that Mississippi has ? This will occur again.

    January 12, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Report abuse | Reply
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