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Judge allows pardoned Mississippi murderers to remain free -- for now

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 7:19 AM EST, Tue January 24, 2012
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour pardoned four convicted murderers before leaving office.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour pardoned four convicted murderers before leaving office.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: The attorney general says he'll ask for "about 170" more convicts to return to jail
  • NEW: Judge says the issue is over "compliance" with requirements regarding pardons
  • This is in addition to the 10 pardoned convicts now listed, including five murderers
  • Authorities say they don't know whereabouts of one murderer who was pardoned

Jackson, Mississippi (CNN) -- A Mississippi court ruled Monday that there will be no change in conditions set for the four convicted murderers pardoned earlier this month by then-Gov. Haley Barbour, at least until a hearing February 3.

The four men can remain free but still have to check in with authorities daily, Hinds County Circuit Judge Tomie Green ruled. Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood had indicated previously that he wants the pardoned convicts to be imprisoned again, though members of his office did not specifically make that request Monday in court.

"The court will grant an extension for an additional 10 days," said Green, who on January 11 had set the conditions for the pardoned convicts and granted a request from Hood for an injunction forbidding the release of any more prisoners pardoned or given clemency by Barbour.

Three of those men -- David Gatlin, Charles Hooker and Anthony McCray -- appeared in the Jackson court for Monday's hearing, along with an attorney who is representing all of them.

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Another murderer who was also released January 8 from prison, Joseph Ozment, was not in the courtroom.

"We have not been able to locate (Ozment)," Assistant Attorney General Bridgette Wiggins said in court Monday. "His whereabouts are unknown."

Green assented Monday to a request from the attorney general's office to add five more convicts pardoned by Barbour to the list who must check in with authorities and could be ordered back to prison.

They include Kirby Glenn Tate, who was convicted on drug charges; Azikiwe Kambule, for being a murder accessory; Joshua Howard, for statutory rape; Katherine Robertson, for aggravated assault; and Aaron Brown, for murder.

After Monday's session, Hood told reporters that he anticipated his office will request "about 170 more" names eventually be added to the list, contending that in each case there was not "proper publication" in advance of their releases. He said his office has found 22 pardoned convicts "actually met the publication requirements and there are nine that are still under review."

They were among the more than 200 people found guilty of a variety of crimes to whom Barbour granted "full pardons" -- meaning the convict's record is effectively wiped clean -- as he closed out his second term as governor.

That move stirred outrage among relatives of the pardoned murderers' victims, among others. Hood has been particularly outspoken, earlier this month calling the pardons "a slap in the face to everyone in law enforcement and (saying) Gov. Barbour should be ashamed."

The attorney general continued his criticism of Barbour in an interview last week with CNN.

"He's just not shown any respect or concern for the victims in these cases," Hood said. "We have victims' rights in our constitution, just like a person charged with a crime, has rights. so, he hasn't shown very much regard or concern for the victims out there."

In court on Monday, Wiggins said, "These individuals still present a threat to the public."

Thomas Fortner, an attorney representing Gatlin, Hooker and McCray, argued Monday that the pardons are valid. Fortner also represents Nathan Kern, who was also in court Monday. He was serving a life sentence for burglary before being pardoned by Barbour .

The Hinds County judge said Monday that the decision should be a fairly cut-and-dry legal matter: Were the right procedures followed as far as giving advanced notice of the prisoners' release?

Less than two weeks ago, Green issued the injunction because it appeared some pardons did not meet the procedural requirement that pardon requests must be published 30 days before being granted. The convicts have been asked to prove they met the 30-day publication requirement.

"The only issue before this court is whether there has been compliance," the judge said Monday. "There is a constitution that I'm duty bound to follow."

Outside the court, Hood said that his office welcomed maintaining the status quo through February 3 so "all these lawyers (can) file all that they want to, so it will all be in front of the court."

"Hopefully, by February 24, we will have a ... motion before the court and ask the court to put these (pardoned convicts) in jail," the attorney general said.

On Friday, Fortner filed a motion on behalf of his clients asking the judge to "disqualify" Hood and the his office from the case.

The motion states that Assistant Attorney General David Scott was among those involved in the posting of notice. It adds Scott, specifically, "is certain to be a witness ... and has already been subpoenaed to testify" in upcoming court proceedings.

The pardoned murderers' motion contends that Hood and his entire office "should be disqualified" from the case, comparing it to what might happen if a law firm had one of its attorneys as a witness.

Meredith Aldridge, a special assistant attorney general, called the motion a "thinly veiled attempt to try to divert the court's attention." She said the motion contends incarcerated inmates had formed "an attorney-client relationship with a lawyer that is assigned to ... represent the Mississippi Department of Corrections. That, as a matter of law, cannot happen."

"This is not a law-firm situation," Aldridge said in court.

While saying she could reconsider after reviewing the motion, Green concluded for now that the "motion is without merit."

"The attorney general has the authority, the responsibility and the obligation to the people of the state of Mississippi to bring the action," the judge said. "I do not see the conflict."

As much as the legal issues that will be decided in court, the larger debate continues over the value of executive pardons. Barbour said January 11 -- the same day as Green's first ruling -- that some people misunderstood the clemency process.

"The pardons were intended to allow (the inmates) to find gainful employment or acquire professional licenses as well as hunt and vote," Barbour said. "My decision about clemency was based upon the recommendation of the Parole Board in more than 90% of the cases."

Mississippi's new governor, Phil Bryant, last week ended the practice of inmate trusties working for the governor.

"As governor, Bryant first discontinued the practice of inmates spending the night on the mansion grounds and then the tradition of pardoning those individuals," said the governor's spokesman, Mick Bullock.

CNN's Ed Lavandera, Tracy Sabo and Rich Phillips in Jackson, Mississippi, contributed to this report.

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