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Barbour's last-minute rush to pardon

By P.S. Ruckman Jr., Special to CNN
updated 4:41 PM EST, Thu January 12, 2012
Those granted clemency by outgoing Gov. Haley Barbour include the older brother of former NFL quarterback Brett Favre.
Those granted clemency by outgoing Gov. Haley Barbour include the older brother of former NFL quarterback Brett Favre.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ex-governor of Mississippi grants clemency to about 200 criminals, including killers
  • P.S. Ruckman Jr. says the decision was clearly a rushed one
  • Ruckman: It's reasonable to worry about potential danger of releasing these people
  • He says that exercising the power of forgiveness reveals the character of the man

Editor's note: P.S. Ruckman Jr. is an associate professor of political science at Rock Valley College and the editor of the Pardon Power blog. He is the author of the forthcoming book, "Pardon Me, Mr. President: Adventures in Crime, Politics and Mercy."

(CNN) -- On his last day in office, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi signed individual executive clemency warrants for about 200 criminals. It was quite a stunt for a guy who had used his clemency power less than a dozen times throughout the previous eight years in office.

Addressing offenses committed from 1 to 51 years ago, Barbour's last-minute clemency warrants feature the usual variety of drug offenses (possession, sale, purchase, production) and the expected bit of robbery and burglary. There are a few quirky offenses: gratification of lust, conspiracy to commit vote fraud, possessing crystal meth near a church and "cyberstalking." The pardon of the older brother of former Green Bay Packer quarterback Brett Favre (deserved or not) will certainly be hard for many to stomach.

But, the overall batch is most conspicuous for the fairly large percentage of individuals who were convicted of murder, accessory to murder, aggravated assault, rape, vehicular homicide, and the like. Yes, it is one very violent crew. And it is more than reasonable to worry about the potential danger of releasing these people.

P.S. Ruckman, Jr.
P.S. Ruckman, Jr.

The signs of a last-minute rush abound. Well over half of the warrants do not even provide the specific sentences that were handed down by the courts. Other critical dates are missing right and left.

Barbour pardoned Leon Turner, but the warrant reveals Turner has been dead since 1999. Barbour's clemency warrant doesn't say when Turner was convicted, if Turner died in prison, or anything about why Turner was pardoned. Which seems odd given the fact that, well, Turner is dead, and given the fact that Barbour did take the time to note that an arsonist from the 1960s was now living a "good, productive and useful life." In the case of Clarence Tyer, his clemency warrant actually says that he was discharged on ";" (a typo I am certain, not an actual date)! It is clear that someone needed to slow down a bit.

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What are the Miss. pardon requirements?

The Founding Fathers considered the pardon power a necessary part of our system of checks and balances and separation of powers. It formally recognizes what we all know to be true: the police are not perfect. Prosecutors, judges and juries are not perfect either. The pardon power can help correct injustices and prevent the legal system from becoming overly harsh.

Instead, Barbour chose to give us still yet another classic example of just about everything the pardon power should not be about. He could have been more open with the public about the pardon process. In routine press conferences and interviews, he could have discussed the factors that affected his decisions. At this point, the only thing that seems to be missing is some hint of "politics" (donors, supporters, friends, relatives, inside access or influence, and the like). But, perhaps we should just give that time.

Barbour clearly could have spread these decisions over a period of months, if not entire years, making each pardon appear more carefully considered, and a lot less suspicious-looking. In a different context, the many that may very well have been deserving of pardon could be a little more proud and enjoy more than a quiet celebration in the privacy of their homes. But I guess when all is said and done, a Republican governor in the South and potential presidential nominee has to keep up appearances.

Some will not be able to resist linking such behavior to a "Willie Horton effect" or Mike Huckabee's decision regarding cop killer Maurice Clemmons, or Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon. But the extraordinary thing about the unilateral power of forgiveness is that its exercise is largely determined by the character, values and judgment of the man or woman who wields it. Like old King Belshazzar, Barbour is weighed in the balance and found wanting.

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The opinions in this commentary are solely those of P.S. Ruckman, Jr.

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