Furor In Mississippi by Judy Keen

Posted: January 18, 2012 in News and politics

When Mary McAbee learned that her brother’s killer had been pardoned by outgoing Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, she says, “It just ripped my heart apart.”

Ricky Montgomery was murdered in 1992 in the convenience store where he worked. Joseph Ozment, who confessed to shooting Montgomery twice in the head, was a trusty working at the governor’s mansion when Barbour this week erased his convictions for murder, conspiracy and armed robbery.

News of the pardon was “a slap in the face,” says McAbee, 56, who lives in Coldwater, Miss.

Her outrage over Barbour’s issuance of more than 200 pardons and sentence suspensions on Tuesday, his final day in office, is shared by other victims’ families, legislators and Mississippians.

Paul Gallo, who hosts a show on the 10-station Super Talk Mississippi Radio Network, says callers are “disappointed … and angry. Most of them want to know why.”

“This is literally a travesty of justice,” says John Dedousis, a physician in Bayonne, N.J., whose sister, Lisa, was one of two people killed in a 2009 car wreck caused by Jackson socialite Karen Irby, who was drunk. Barbour changed her 18-year manslaughter sentence to house arrest. Dedousis created a Facebook page, Victims of Mississippi Pardons, to call for an investigation.

Barbour, 64, a Republican, served two terms as Mississippi governor and could not run a third time because of term limits. He announced last April that he would not seek the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

Barbour said in a statement Wednesday that some people “misunderstood” the clemency and pardon process. About 90% of those affected were no longer in custody, he said, and his actions were meant to “allow them to find gainful employment or acquire professional licenses as well as hunt and vote.”

Later Wednesday, Circuit Judge Tomie Green blocked the release of 21 inmates at the request of Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat.

The state constitution says any inmate seeking a pardon must have a public notice published in a newspaper 30 days before a pardon can be granted. In some cases, Hood says, not enough time had elapsed.

Four murderers — Ozment, Anthony McCray, Charles Hooker and David Gatlin — and one burglar, Nathan Kern, who were released last weekend were ordered by Green to prove at a Jan. 23 hearing that they met the deadline. If they can’t, their pardons will be voided.

Among those pardoned was Earnest Scott Favre, brother of former NFL quarterback Brett Favre. He pleaded guilty to driving in front of a train while drunk in 1996, resulting in the death of his best friend.

In 2011, sisters Jamie and Gladys Scott were released from prison after Barbour set the condition that one donate a kidney to the other. They were serving double life sentences for participating in a robbery. The surgery has yet to occur; their lawyer, Chokwe Lumumba, said their pardon request was not granted.

Brian Kalt, a Michigan State University law professor, says some states give the governor sole authority to grant pardons, others have a panel that decides, and some give the power to a board and the governor.

“Historically, the justification (for clemency) has been that it’s a safety valve” to negate unfair sentences, Kalt says. “We leave it to the governor … because the governor is the one person who can act quickly and decisively and is also politically accountable.” But allowing governors to grant pardons as they leave office is “a big flaw,” he says.

On his last day in office in 2001, President Clinton issued more than 100 pardons and sentence commutations; many were controversial.

On Dec. 24, 1992, President George H.W. Bush pardoned six administration officials for their roles in the sale of arms to Iran and the diversion of profits to Nicaraguan rebels.

Many of Barbour’s decisions “were pretty defensible, but to do it on the last day in the 11th hour as you’re walking out the door — without an explanation — makes even the most worthwhile pardons look fishy,” says Dan Kobil, a law professor at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, who writes about executive clemency.

P.S. Ruckman, a political science professor at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill., blogs about the issue at pardonpower.com. He analyzed Barbour’s actions and says, “What jumped out at me was a pretty high percentage of them” were people convicted of murder, manslaughter and other violent crimes.

Mississippi state Rep. David Baria, a Democrat, says his constituents are reacting with “equal amounts of outrage and revulsion.”

Baria has introduced legislation in the past three sessions that would have required community hearings before pardons in murder cases. The bills were not enacted.

He’ll try again this year and also plans to sponsor bills that would prevent capital murderers from working at the governor’s mansion and prevent governors from issuing pardons in their final 90 days in office.

“People want something done,” he says.

Contributing: The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss.; the Associated Press

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