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. chelsea12345

    If a pardoned criminal re-offends then the idiot who granted clemency should be charged as an accomplice. Violent criminals are put in prison for a reason. We don't invest time and money to put them there just to let some jerk let them out with the flick of a pen.

    January 12, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • mickey1313

      agreed, they shouldnt even have the right to pardon, almost every pardon is cronieism, a friend of the pardoner. It is sad and sick.

      January 12, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • vinobianco

      Don't people have a right to a second chance after they've served their dues? What's wrong with this country that we are so tied up with "justice." if someone shows to have been rehabilitated they shouldn't serve longer than they need to. THAT is what costs money. Norway's maximum prison sentence is 20 years.

      January 12, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Report abuse |
  2. zip

    sounds like haley found a way to supplement his income.

    January 12, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • RobbD

      ...agreed...something is not quite right with this.

      January 12, 2012 at 7:43 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Gonfis

    Even after reading his reasons the only conclusion is that Barbour had a major brain fart.

    January 12, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Mary

    No 'ONE' person should have this power.
    What do we have a judicial system set up for , if one man can just sign his name and undo all of it?
    Every one of these criminals should be put back in jail to serve the time that was given to them..
    If there is just cause for their release, it needs to be done legally..With evidence and due process..

    January 12, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
  5. HeWhoSeeks

    Looks to me as though outrage is the first thought that enters folks minds. It does go to show how little faith we put in the judgement of our elected officials. How do you imagine he came up with the 200 individuals he pardoned? Lottery, names from a hat? I am sure he put alot of thought into the applicants, the point is YOU KNOW ABSOLUTELY NOTHING these people. but you are so quick to spout off.

    January 12, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tammy

      You're a loved one of someone who was pardoned aren't you?

      January 12, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • mickey1313

      CONVICTED FELONS, that is all I need to know.

      January 12, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • HeWhoSeeks

      LOL, no Tammy, just someone who DOESNT think we elect only idiots to office. As I said these comments go far to show the intelligence of our electorate. What you should be concerned about is not the 200 supposed criminals put back on the street but the 100 times as many who havent been caught. You city is chalk full of individuals who have no feelings about you at all. but lash out at the ones, who in his wiser moments the past governor decided either the evidence was weak, or they had been rehabilitated. but you all no everything, funny your not in office

      January 12, 2012 at 8:07 pm | Report abuse |
  6. kbrown

    Haley Barbour,another wonderful Republican governor... you're right Zip, Haley found some $$$. Paroles for sale!

    January 12, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jimbostud

    This is the exact reason we need to throw all elected officials out on their butts. They just do not "get it" that they are there to serve the people who elected them as opposed to their own special interests. These guys should not be immune to prosecution and should be put in prison for these kind of actions

    January 12, 2012 at 7:42 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Papa Lazarou

    I pardon all of you for your self righteous indignation

    January 12, 2012 at 7:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jimh77

      Thank you, Thank you very much. Can some one pass the wine?

      January 12, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Report abuse |
  9. toadears

    Look in Florida. That's where America's Most Wanted used to find 90% of them.

    January 12, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Jimbostud

    Mary is right on. kbrown wants to play partisan politics which is part of the problem. People/candidates/whoever are so consumed with placing blame on the other they miss the entire point.

    January 12, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Kevin

    Well done, Haley. You're quite the humanitarian. Hope one of those guys doesn't slaughter one of your family members... Maybe he thought he was signing contracts for speaking engagements.

    January 12, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Report abuse |
  12. CarolO

    This Governor has always been an idiot. What a slap in the face to the victims families and our law enforcement agencies. A pardon means they have a clean record and nothing will be on their record regarding these murders. His Governor needs to be arrested for abuse of his powers.

    January 12, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tammy

      "This Governor has always been an idiot" and yet like Texans who have kept Rick the d ick Perry in his mansion, MS has done the same? America deserves the politicians/ppl we place in office, and even keep in office on local levels and national levels....

      January 12, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Harin

    Papa, I was getting worked up till I read your post. I can log off smiling now.

    January 12, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Deej59

    Another libtard governor with a bleeding heart! They should throw his libtard a** in jail! No! EXECUTE the libt... What? Republican? Get out! ... Really?? Well then you libtards shut up! You just question the governor because you hate America! Yeah.

    January 12, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • mickey1313

      your post actually sounds like the real gop leadership.

      January 12, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Deej59

      Thanks, Mickey. When I do that impression in public I shove people down and take their money and give it to my rich friend. Really completes the illusion.

      January 12, 2012 at 8:07 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Luis

    This is beyond baffling. The number of inmates pardoned and the crimes they were convicted of... I fail to see how you could justify this. This is insane. Seriously. This man needs to have his mind checked.

    January 12, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Report abuse |
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