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.

In January 2008, two men convicted of rape and murder in the early 1990s—Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer—were released from Parchman after they were exonerated by DNA evidence. (I wrote about their cases for Slate last year.) The two were convicted based almost exclusively on the testimony of medical examiner Steven Hayne and self-proclaimed bite mark expert Michael West. West has testified in dozens of other cases in Mississippi. Hayne, whom I've been reporting on for three years now, has testified in thousands. Both men have been condemned by their colleagues for giving testimony wholly unsupported by science. There are at least three people on death row in Mississippi who were convicted thanks largely to Hayne's testimony (one is another bite mark case also involving West), and in all three cases more reputable forensic experts have come forward to express grave concern about what Hayne's said on the stand. The Mississippi Innocence Project and the Innocence Project in New York are looking at hundreds of other noncapital cases involving Hayne and West.

Last May, I reported on yet another death penalty case in Louisiana that also featured Hayne, West, and bite marks, and was able to obtain video of West's "examination" of the victim, a young girl. Forensic specialists to whom I've shown the video say that it may actually depict criminal evidence tampering—West appears to be actually creating bite marks on the child using a plaster mold of the suspect's teeth.

The stories about Hayne and West have been all over Mississippi's newspapers and TV and radio stations, and on a few occasions have made national news. Yet Barbour hasn't uttered a word about them. He hasn't expressed sympathy or apologized to Kennedy Brewer or Levon Brooks for their wrongful incarceration (and in Brewer's case, his near execution). Nor, for that matter, has Barbour said anything about Cedric Willis, another Mississippi man recently exonerated for a murder he didn't commit. "It's disappointing that the governor's mercy largesse hasn't reached the people whom Dr. Hayne and West affected—many of whom, unlike the people the governor pardons, are unquestionably innocent," says Tucker Carrington, who heads up the Mississippi Innocence Project.

Barbour's odd record can only prompt questions about the proper use of the pardon. There's some indication that the Founders intended this power as a last check against injustice, not only in cases of wrongful conviction, but where the law was misapplied or where a conviction otherwise wouldn't be in the interest of justice or fairness, even when the defendant is actually guilty.

Yet that isn't how governors generally use the pardon. Instead, they bestow redemption on guilty people who claim that they're rehabilitated. This converts the pardon from a check on an imperfect system to an almost religious capacity for conferring forgiveness, for reasons often more personal than related to public policy.

There's room to debate whether the criminal justice system is too punitive and if it should focus more on rehabilitation than it does. But the pardon and clemency power isn't the place for it. That power is correctly used to draw attention to injustice, not grant mercy to a few lucky (and guilty) souls. Barbour is handing out mercy to killers while paying no heed to the staggeringly flawed system operating right under his nose.

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Radley Balko is a senior editor for Reason magazine.

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