Haley Barbour's bizarre pardon record.

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Dec. 17 2009 11:28 AM

Haley Barbour's Bizarre Pardon Record

The Mississippi governor shows mercy only to murderers who work on his house.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour 

Mike Huckabee took a beating from his conservative brethren last month after Maurice Clemmons, a man whose sentence the former Arkansas governor commuted in 2000, shot and killed four police officers in Lakewood, Wash. The scuttlebutt on the right suggested that Clemmons' release may doom Huckabee's chances of winning the Republican nomination for president in 2012. I happen to think Huckabee's getting a raw deal on the Clemmons case; instead, we should be talking about the truly bizarre pardon record of one of Huckabee's possible competitors for the nomination, Haley Barbour. The governor of Mississippi has simultaneously ignored increasing evidence that there may be a disturbingly high number of innocent people in prison in Mississippi and handed out pardons to the convicted murderers who just happen to do work on his house.

Until 2008, Barbour had been stingy with the pardon. In 2006, I wrote a story for Reason magazine about Cory Maye, a black man in Jefferson Davis County, Miss., convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for shooting and killing a white cop during a botched drug raid. My reporting spawned an outpouring of support for Maye, including from gun rights and home defense advocates on the right, who were outraged over a death sentence for a man who by all appearances thought he was defending his home from apparent intruders. In researching the story, I asked an aide to Barbour whether the governor would ever consider a pardon or clemency for Maye, given that gun rights advocates might support a show of mercy. The aide responded that last he'd heard, Barbour didn't even read pardon petitions. A pardon in a case like Maye's—the cop he killed was the son of the town police chief—was a nonstarter.

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Barbour took some heat in 2006 when he refused to issue a posthumous pardon to Clyde Kennard, a civil rights worker framed for stealing chicken feed in 1960—a false accusation that prevented him from integrating Mississippi Southern College. The school, now the University of Southern Mississippi, has a building named for Kennard, and Barbour had acknowledged his innocence. But there was no precedent for a posthumous pardon in Mississippi, even though there are plenty of examples elsewhere. A Barbour spokesman put it bluntly and broadly, "The governor hasn't pardoned anyone, be it alive or deceased. The governor isn't going to issue a pardon here."

And then he started to. Over the last two years, as reported by the Jackson Free Press, Barbour has pardoned, granted clemency to, or suspended the sentences of at least five convicted murderers, four of whom killed their wives or girlfriends. Those four are:

  • Bobby Hays Clark, who in 1996 shot his ex-girlfriend in the neck and beat her boyfriend with a broom handle. Clark, who had a previous aggravated assault conviction, was sentenced to 38 years. Barbour pardoned him last year without notifying the family of Clark's victim.
  • Michael David Graham, who in 1989 shot his ex-wife point-blank with a shotgun while she waited at a traffic light. Barbour suspended Graham's life sentence, and he was released.
  • Clarence Jones, who stabbed his ex-girlfriend 22 times in 1992. She had previously filed multiple assault and trespassing charges against him. He was sentenced to life in prison. Barbour pardoned him last year.
  • Paul Joseph Warnock, who in 1989 shot his girlfriend in the back of the head as she slept. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1993. Barbour pardoned him last year.

Barbour also pardoned William James Kimble, convicted and sentenced to life for robbing and murdering an elderly man in 1991.

None of these men were pardoned because of concerns that they didn't receive a fair trial or could be innocent. Instead, all five were enrolled in a prison trusty program that had them doing odd jobs around the Mississippi governor's mansion. Responding to backlash when Barbour suspended Graham's sentence, a spokesman for Barbour told the Free Press, "Historically, Governors have reviewed cases like that of Michael Graham, whose conduct as a prisoner earned him the right to work as a trusty at the Governor's Mansion, where he has performed well and proven to be a diligent workman. The Governor is giving him a chance through an indefinite suspension of his sentence to start a new life away from Pascagoula and Jackson County, pending his future good behavior."

Whether a man who shot his ex-wife point-blank with a shotgun deserves a chance to start a new life, and whether giving him that chance is a proper use of the clemency power is, I suppose, something GOP primary voters will mull over should Barbour decide to run for president in 2012. What's perverse is that while Barbour's been generously dispensing mercy to convicted murderers fortunate enough to get face time with him in Jackson, he's been utterly uninterested in a crisis unfolding in his state's criminal justice system, and the very real possibility that there are a number of innocent people at Mississippi's Parchman Penitentiary, including on death row.

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