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

    "Common Sense" (What an ironic name selection) WHAT in my post justified that. I thought I was, dare I say it, "fair and balanced". Is it because I don't blindly follow the Democratic party line, or take as gospel every piece of "journalism" that CNN, or any other channel, for that matter, puts out? Is it just because I am from Mississippi, and I have the audacity to be able to converse and debate in a civil manner? Does the thought of an intelligent southerner threaten you? I agree with MississippiBoy that what Barbour did was reprehensible, regardless of his party affiliation. I hope you are sitting down CS, because it might shock you to learn that I also support many hard and fast Democratic values, such as a womans right to choose, and gay rights. Based on your attack, I have to assume that you are a left-wing extremist. And just for the record, I have no tolerance for extremists, be they left wing, right wing, christian, muslim, or martian!

    January 12, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
  2. jesse

    pardons are stupid and completely unfair. i'd hate to be some low level drug dealer who's doing 20years in prison watch a dude who murdered people walk free just because he worked at the governors house. sets a bad president. if you let some go, you may as well let them all go. hate special treatment.

    January 12, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |
  3. LME

    Has this man lost his mind?!?!?! How bout getting wrongfully charged inmates out?!?! or those who may have messed up with their probation of say, missing a child payment because they lost their job and are in jail?!?! Those who do or want to serve something to society? Murders?! Rapists?! Na, this guy has made one huge STUPID decission, unbelievable.

    January 12, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pete/Ark

      He also "didn't remember" segregation in the 50's being "all that bad".

      January 12, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • nogood

      Barbour has no mind to lose. Why or how did the good people of Mississippi even elect this "parasite" is beyond belief.

      January 12, 2012 at 7:08 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Grace

    As a Mississippian and a victim of violent crime, I am terrified by the pardons. I am furious–Barbour said that he was letting some inmates out of jail because their health care costs were too high. When the state can't afford to keep murderers locked up, that's anarchy. Haley Barbour has let us down and put our families in danger by being arrogant enough to think that he can overturn centuries of political and philosophical thought that is our justice system.

    January 12, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Report abuse |
  5. red1

    It is plain to see Mr Barbour is being blackmailed by the "HELP" he had working in his home. Those criminals got the goods on Mr Barbour and they blackmailed him. Wonder how Republicans will make this one ok?

    January 12, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dana safe in Alaska

      Maybe they are just bribed assassins. Or at the very least hired muscle.

      January 12, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Anon

      Interesting point about having information on Barbour for blackmail purposes. What ever the reason behind the pardons it doesn't pass the sniff test or the basic sanity test for that matter.

      January 12, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Dana safe in Alaska

    The only good thing to say is thank God we only had to deal with the antics of the likes of a Sarah Palin and not a Haley Barbour. I guess," In The Heat Of The Night" is not representative of true life in Mississippi.

    January 12, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Kimy scrib

    I dont think this has anything to do with left or right, i assume that both are shocked and scrambling to try and fix this idiots mess. His actions were obviously his screw up, an thats where the blame should rest..duh.

    January 12, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Report abuse |
  8. BL

    Barbour is a monster who's legacy will always be one of reprehensible, irresponsible abuse of power.

    January 12, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • GB

      And he was elected into power. ELECTED.

      January 12, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Paul

    I surely would like to know the racial makeup of those pardoned, as compared to the racial makeup of the governor's mansion trustees, and of the overall population of Mississippi prisons.

    January 12, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bill

      Love it! Playing the race card without even admittedly knowing the facts! Typical.

      January 12, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Bill

    This is an age-old practice that needs to end. It is a complete travesty of justice that any man/woman can overturn the findings of a jury without even having to justify his/her actions. Shame on Haley Barbour. Shame!

    January 12, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Report abuse |
  11. jake

    The executive power to pardon criminals needs to be taken away from governors. Last year, Schwarzenegger reduced a murder sentence of a political crony's son. Now Barbour pardons murders working at has mansion. A jury spoke, these men were convicted. A governor shouldn't be able to override a jury verdict.

    January 12, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Eric

    They all hand out some pardons that someone is angry about, but c'mon Barbour really?! This thing stinks at all new levels......

    January 12, 2012 at 7:00 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Marcus

    Well, I talked to Oliver North and John Poindexter about these pardons and they looked at me like I was crazy!

    January 12, 2012 at 7:02 pm | Report abuse |
  14. bookldy209

    Why is this even allowed under the law? All are criminals convicted in our court system. What a travesty for those who suffered from their violence. Governor Arnie did much the same. Being able to overturn the legal system should not be a retirement benefit.

    January 12, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
  15. DC

    Aw, poor Mississippi (pun intended). Can't ya'll just grab yer shot-guns and defend yerselves all vigilante style? How's Mr. Barbour's good ol' boy, southern-friend, conservatism taste now? Well guess what? Ya'll made yer bed with the GOP when ya voted for this right-wing nut, now lie in it!

    January 12, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
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