Why The Public Outcry Over Mississippi Pardons?

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Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour says faith guided his decision to pardon more than 200 convicted criminals before he left office. Now the state's attorney general is seeking a court order to void some of those pardons. Host Michel Martin talks with Clarion-Ledger Reporter Jessica Bakeman about the pending legal challenge.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to spend the next few minutes talking about matters of faith. Later, we'll talk about a new book that asks why so many young adults who were raised going to church wind up leaving as soon as the decision is left up to them. The book is called "You Lost Me." Why young Christians are leaving church and rethinking faith. We'll talk to the author in a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk about another issue where faith meets politics. In Mississippi, the fallout continues over pardons granted by former Governor Haley Barbour just days before he left office last week. Barbour, a very popular Republican who briefly flirted with running for president, extended pardons to more than 200 convicted criminals, among them a handful of convicted murderers who had done work at the executive mansion.

Now, the state's attorney general, Democrat Jim Hood, will ask the court on Monday to overturn several of those pardons, including the five that were granted to inmates who worked as so-called trustees performing those jobs at the governor's mansion.

Four of those inmates were convicted of murder and the fifth of burglary. And the new governor, who's also a Republican, Phil Bryant, has just announced that he's suspending the practice of having inmate trustees work in the governor's mansion.

Joining us to tell us more about this is Jessica Bakeman. She's covered this story extensively as a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger, which is based in Mississippi.

Jessica, thanks so much for joining us.

JESSICA BAKEMAN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: What do you think is behind the public outcry in response to these pardons? Is it the fact that it came at the end of his term? Is it the number of people? The fact that people who had been convicted of violent crimes were included? What do you think is it that's kind of, you know, pushed people's buttons?

BAKEMAN: The whole outrage, as you would call it, started with victims' families, victims of the murderers who lived at the mansion speaking out, saying, why are these people being pardoned? We're afraid to have them on the streets. And then the general public in Mississippi, I think, just says, why should a murderer be let out? Why should someone who's convicted of a violent crime, a sex crime, not serve their time? Why should they be able to not have to register as a sex offender? Why should they be able to buy a gun and move into a house next door to me without me even knowing?

MARTIN: Now, I want to just play a short clip of the former governor addressing Mississippi media about his decision to grant the pardons. Here it is.

HALEY BARBOUR: Let me first say, I am very comfortable with the decisions I've made during my term of governor as to clemency. All this is consistent with the powers given the governor by our constitution and I am fully confident the pardons and other clemency that I have given are all valid.

MARTIN: In an op-ed that Haley Barbour published, he also went on to say that, in Mississippi, the constitutional power of pardon is based on our Christian belief in repentance, forgiveness and redemption, a second chance for those who are rehabilitated and who redeem themselves. Other great religions have similar tenets, so does the U.S. Constitution.

Now, Mississippi is, of course, in the Bible Belt and I'm wondering whether there's any support for that point of view.

BAKEMAN: I have to say something that I heard some other experts talking about. I'm not a religion expert, but I have heard people talking about the difference between Old Testament Christianity and New Testament Christianity and many Mississippians supporting an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth instead of the idea of Jesus's turn the other cheek, forgiveness, second chances.

So that's what I've heard other experts talking about. I'm certainly not an expert there, but that's pretty much as much as I can speak to the religious aspect.

MARTIN: Now, as we just mentioned, Mississippi's attorney general, Jim Hood, is mounting a legal challenge to Barbour's pardons. What's the basis for his review?

BAKEMAN: He literally said that he was looking for anything he could find to challenge the pardons and what he found was that the specific wording in the constitution of Mississippi says that, in order to be granted a pardon, you have to have published for 30 days in a newspaper in the county where the crime took place your request for a pardon so that the public knows about it.

And they found that, in the majority of the pardons granted, that publication requirement was not met sufficiently, either because it was not published 30 days before the pardon was granted or because, if you look at it very literally, it was not published every day for 30 days before the pardon was granted.

MARTIN: So, in essence, he's looking for a technicality to overturn these?

BAKEMAN: Well, I would just be careful using those words because people feel very strongly about the constitution. It's the document that governs our state and most people, I think, in government here would look at a very conservative, strict interpretation of the constitution and so they wouldn't call it a technicality.

MARTIN: OK. Duly noted. And, as we mentioned that Jim Hood is a Democrat. Is there any partisan - is there any aspect of this that's partisan?

BAKEMAN: Governor Barbour has certainly said that there is in that same press conference. He said that Jim Hood didn't peep when former governors who were Democrat pardoned people on their way out, but you know, in his case, he is going after Governor Barbour because of politics and then we asked Jim Hood about that and he said it's not about politics. It's about the constitution and, in his words, that's what people say when they're in dire straits.

MARTIN: And, also, it's worth noting that Haley Barbour's successor, Phil Bryant, who is a Republican, has also made changes to the program that allowed these inmates to work at the mansion and also there's a move to curtail the governor's future power to - a future governor's power to issue pardons. Where does that stand?

BAKEMAN: Well, right now, it's still in the proposed legislation. You know, it hasn't even actually been brought up because we just got started in our legislative session, but there are definitely several bills that will be proposed this session that deal with different aspects of the pardon power. But the one that you're talking about specifically would be a constitutional amendment that, if it were approved by the legislature, would also have to be approved by voters. And that would limit the power of the governor to grant clemency.

MARTIN: You know, as I mentioned earlier, Haley Barbour has a reputation of being a very savvy politician. He's a former national party chairman, very popular, as we mentioned, nationally, as well as locally, among Republicans. And he seems to have been blindsided by the reaction to this and I'm just wondering if there's any idea why. Do you have any clue about why that is?

BAKEMAN: He said he expected there to be some anger from victims' families because he did pardon the trustees who worked at the mansion during his first term and had a similar reaction then, but he was pretty much astounded by it. And, like I said before, blamed it on the politics of the whole thing, where most other people are saying the most surprising thing to them is how many people were pardoned and that it was done in his last hours of office.

MARTIN: Jessica Bakeman is a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger, Mississippi's largest newspaper, and she was kind enough to join us from Jackson.

Thanks so much for speaking with us.

BAKEMAN: Thanks.

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