Terrance Winters of Yazoo City, Miss., voted for Haley Barbour in the past, and while he gives the ex-governor a mixed grade these days, particularly on economic matters, he’s always given Barbour points for political shrewdness.
Which is why Winters, a 31-year-old cook at a barbecue restaurant, is flummoxed by the mess that Barbour left behind after stepping down from office this week.
“I actually don’t know what he was thinking,” Winters said.
That is a question most of Mississippi, and the political world far beyond it, is asking.
In his final days of a two-term run as governor, the law-and-order Republican granted pardons or early release to more than 200 Mississippi lawbreakers.
The actions have brought criticism from victims’ families, everyday Mississippians like Winters, and Democratic officials including Jim Hood, the state attorney general, who persuaded a judge to put some of the pardons on hold.
“It’s unfortunate Gov. Barbour didn’t read the constitution,” Hood said in a televised interview Wednesday.
“It’s a shame, and he ought to be ashamed,” Hood added.
Four of those pardoned were convicted killers who had worked as prison-system trusty laborers at the antebellum governor’s mansion in Jackson.
Two others were from well-known families: Earnest Scott Favre, who pleaded guilty to killing his friend in a 1996 drunk driving incident, is the brother of former NFL star and Mississippi native Brett Favre, according to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. Karen Irby, whom the Clarion-Ledger refers to as a “former Jackson socialite,” was granted conditional clemency for two manslaughter charges stemming from an alcohol-related 2009 auto wreck.
The matter threatens to tarnish the exceptional reputation that Barbour enjoyed in his conservative home state, even as high-profile gaffes on the national stage last year made him reconsider a run for president.
A November survey by the firm Public Policy Polling found that Barbour enjoyed a 60% approval rating in Mississippi, the highest number among 42 sitting governors about whom the company inquired, according to Director Tom Jensen. By law he could only serve two consecutive terms.
After 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, many credited him with managing the crisis with a steady hand that his Democratic counterpart in Louisiana, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, was seen as lacking.
Despite his years as a Washington lobbyist and GOP big shot — he chaired the Republican National Committee from 1993 to 1997 — Barbour’s drawly, down-home persona charmed his fellow Mississippians, particularly the white, conservative ones that Mississippi State University political scientist Marty Wiseman calls “that 67% constituency” — a reference to the 67% of voters who, in 2001, said they preferred keeping the Confederate battle flag as part of the state flag.
“He knew them like the back of his hand,” Wiseman said. “And that’s why I look at this thing and it’s so counter to it, you know? It’s the darndest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
A call to BGR Group, the Washington lobbying firm where he worked previously — and plans to work again — was not returned Thursday. In a statement Wednesday, Barbour said people misunderstood his motives.
“The pardons were intended to allow them to find gainful employment or acquire professional licenses as well as hunt and vote,” he said. “My decision about clemency was based upon the recommendation of the parole board in more than 90% of the cases.”
Barbour said the people were “not threats to society, but if any of them commits an offense — even a misdemeanor — they’ll be returned to custody to serve out their term.”
Of the 215 people Barbour pardoned, 26 were still incarcerated. The other 189 had already completed their sentences.
Hood, the attorney general, asked a judge to halt the release of the prisoners until it could be determined that they had fulfilled a constitutional rule requiring inmates to publish a legal newspaper notice in the county of conviction 30 days before their release. Of the 26 inmates who were pardoned, five were released. Four of the five were murderers.
Late Wednesday, Hinds County Circuit Judge Tomie Green blocked the releases of the remaining 21 inmates, writing that there was “a substantial likelihood of success” on the attorney general’s claim that the pardons violated the state constitution.
Green ordered the five men who were released to report daily to the state corrections department.
Wiseman said Barbour’s moves have put his fellow Republicans in an odd position. Barbour helped the state party gain the largest share of political power since Reconstruction, earning control of both houses of the Legislature, the governor’s mansion — Barbour was succeeded by GOP Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant — and every statewide elected office save attorney general.
“He was Republican Party politics for the last eight years,” he said. “Now [Republicans] have all been put in the position of defending their traditional law-and-order positions, and yet trying to avoid what would have been heresy only two weeks ago — and that’s being critical of Haley Barbour.”
The pardon affair could also prove beneficial to a Democratic Party that Barbour, in eight years in office, seemed to outmaneuver at every turn. In particular, Hood, a conservative, fifth-generation Mississippian, with a wide base of political support, could see his fortunes rise.
The reverberations have spread beyond Mississippi. John Dedousis, a physician in Bayonne, N.J., started a Facebook page called “Victims of Mississippi Pardons.”
His sister Lisa Dedousis was one of the victims killed by Irby, the socialite who caused the 2009 drunken-driving wreck. The accident also claimed the life of Mark Pogue, Lisa Dedouisis’ fiance.
Dedousis said he hoped lawmakers nationwide would now focus on clemency rules in order to prevent outgoing governors from making “singlehanded” decisions about the fate of criminals.
“It’s a travesty,” he said. “And I’m bewildered.”
Times staff writer Stephen Ceasar in Los Angeles contributed to this report.