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. fekt

    has it occured to anyone this is just his way of giving the entire country the finger on his way out. i'm doing what i like regardless of what you all think and there's nothing you can do about it HA HA? showing his true colors which were probably already pretty easy to see to most observers and yet there were clearly enough morons in the state of mississippi to continue electing him? every single person who cast a vote for this man, who i'm certain was clearly corrupt and flipant before this incident bears a portion of the responsibility for any and all crimes that these men will commit. most likely it will begin sooner than later. thanks heaps for towing the party line and voting in anyone who says abortion bad baby jesus good despite the rest of the crap coming out of his mouth telling anyone with an ounce of sense he doesn't need a position of authority.

    January 12, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Ken Andrews

    Haley: Show us the money.........you made off this stunt.

    January 12, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Report abuse |
  3. AC Summers

    He should go to prison for doing this. He has no regard for public safety.
    It would be so ironic if one of the murderers he pardoned came upon him for a thank you visit.

    January 12, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Report abuse |
  4. bscasc

    Thank goodness for this tough on crime conservative

    January 12, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Report abuse |
  5. ATLmatt

    barbour is a fat prik

    January 12, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Report abuse |
  6. TFX

    You can almost guarantee Barbour would not have granted clemency to a prisoner that commited a crime against him or one of his family members. It is likely one of the pardoned offenders will commit another crime. Wouldn't it be ironic if the crime was against one of Barbour's relatives.

    January 12, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Dee

    This is an outrage! Why do we give any elected official this kind of power that can be so easily misused and abused. What is the point of it? What is the point of a conviction or a sentence when someone can come along and erase it without reason and explanation. It is disgusting. I keep picturing the murderer who shot his girlfriend while she was sitting in a chair holding her six week old child. There is no reforming a person like that. Society needs to be protected. How do men like Haley Barbour sleep at night and what was his motivation for pardoning so many?

    January 12, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Charuz

    My experience with reading about pardons is that the person who offers it always comes up with a reason why; at times the reasons make sense and most often not. Has a reason been given for the logic behind these? Not that I can think of any logical reason for pardoning murderers. And, for those who just like to put out negative comments, I'm not condoning any of these actions, just asking a question.

    January 12, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Mike

    There is a saying in Georgia:

    'Thank God for Alabama, otherwise, Georgia would be next to Mississippi !'

    January 12, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Tim

    Funny how CNN makes a big deal about a little southern state?? If Barber would have been a Democrat we would have not even heard about this. Wake up to the liberal media!

    January 12, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      Your statement is 'mindless rhetoric' ! This story would not matter being GOP or DEM !

      January 12, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ally Buster

      Spoken like a true Nazi!

      -Or is it like a true KKK member?

      -Or is it like a true republican?

      January 12, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • charlie from the North

      It is simple. for as long as I can remember the GOP candidate who gets the nomination almost always looks for someone worse to be his (up to now his, try again Michelle B) running mate. Eisenhower picked Nixon, Nixon had Agnew. Reagan found George Sr. (exception that proves the rule) George W. found Cheney (or maybe he was manufactured by Haliburton and of course who can forget (though we may want to) John McCain's choice of Caribou Barbie.

      Well so anyway looking at this year's crop of candidates Haley Barbour , who wants to be Vice President, must have realized that to be worse then one of them he couldn't just be some bad governor..... he had to be a public menace.

      Watch your review mirror Gov. Barbour we got a governor here in Maine that could give you a run for your money. But you sure are giving it all you got.

      January 12, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Report abuse |
  11. 1rooster

    Remember 'Willie Horton'? I do. That's how George H W Bush defeated Dukaukis.

    January 12, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Ally Buster

    Thankfully, this probably means the end of this white supremacists political career.

    January 12, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Ally Buster

    Mississippi: The land where it is considered "OK" to run over a black man with a pickup truck!

    January 12, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Report abuse |
  14. charlie from the North

    It is simple. for as long as I can remember the GOP candidate who gets the nomination almost always looks for someone worse to be his (up to now his, try again Michelle B) running mate. Eisenhower picked Nixon, Nixon had Agnew. Reagan found George Sr. (exception that proves the rule) George W. found Cheney (or maybe he was manufactured by Haliburton and of course who can forget (though we may want to) John McCain's choice of Caribou Barbie.

    Well so anyway looking at this year's crop of candidates Haley Barbour , who wants to be Vice President, must have realized that to be worse then one of them he couldn't just be some bad governor..... he had to be a public menace.

    Watch your review mirror Gov. Barbour we got a governor here in Maine that could give you a run for your money. But you sure are giving it all you got.

    January 12, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Santa Claus + Thomas Paine

    Haley Barbour, take your bribe money from murderers and go PH-uck yourself with your convicted felon errand boys.

    January 12, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
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