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Mississippi pardons challenged at court hearing

By Rich Phillips, CNN
updated 7:17 AM EST, Fri February 10, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Barbour "didn't even consider" victims' families, a slain woman's mother says
  • NEW: Governor's lawyer argued notice wouldn't have changed the decision
  • Outgoing Gov. Haley Barbour pardoned about 200 inmates, including 4 murderers
  • If the court rules against pardons, a lower court would hear cases individually

(CNN) -- Judges on Mississippi's Supreme Court on Thursday heard challenges to the scores of controversial pardons issued by former Gov. Haley Barbour on his way out of office, peppering lawyers with questions but making no immediate ruling.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, who argued the pardons were unconstitutional, called it "the longest hour and a half I've ever been through in my life."

"I'm confident in the position we've taken," Hood told reporters after the hearing. "Now whether or not the court accepts our argument, I'm not sure."

The justices are expected to decide whether the pardons can be challenged. If the court rules against pardons, a lower court would be asked to hold hearings on each individual case. It is not clear when the judges will make their decision.

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"I think well-reasoned and well-thought-out arguments were made on both sides," said Tom Fortner, a lawyer for four of the former prisoners. "The justices asked some really good questions, really hard questions. I think they've got a big decision to make, and it's up to them now."

As he closed out his second term as governor, Barbour granted "full pardons" -- meaning the convict's record is effectively wiped clean -- to more than 200 people found guilty of various crimes. Among the group were four men convicted of murder. The four had been working as "trusties" at the governor's mansion, and their release from state custody caused an outrage -- particularly among relatives of the pardoned murderers' victims.

Hood argued that the pardons were unconstitutional, because most of the inmates involved did not fulfill all of the required steps, and that Barbour failed to give the public 30 days' notice before granting the pardons.

"We don't look into the wisdom of what they did. That's strictly up to the governor. The only question for the state is whether or not the constitution was followed, whether the people's right to notice was violated, and whether or not it's an invasion of the judiciary's right to have its laws carried out," Hood told CNN's "Erin Burnett OutFront."

One of those pardoned was David Gatlin, who was convicted of killing his estranged wife Tammy in 1993. He had been serving a life-plus-30-year sentence for shooting her as she held their 6-week-old baby in her arms. Betty Ellis, the victim's mother, told CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360" that Barbour "didn't even consider us as being in the picture" when he issued the pardons.

"It's like the victim was never there," Ellis said. "It was just a pardon he was going to do because he could do it, and that's what he did."

But in court, Barbour attorney Charles Griffin argued that there was "no substantive right that has been violated" by the governor's failure to give 30 days' notice of the pardon.

"There has been no harm," he told the justices.

And in a written brief, the former governor's lawyers argued that previous state court rulings had found the 30-day notice rule was "an unconstitutional encroachment" on the governor's power. In addition, the notice would have made no difference in Barbour's decision, they argued.

"Had notice been published 30 months in advance, no one could have stopped the pardons," they wrote.

Barbour has also defended his pardons and has said the former inmates had been rehabilitated. Ernest Jacks, Gatlin's friend, has said he feels the convicted killer has changed and is no longer dangerous.

Jacks said he supports the pardon and has allowed Gatlin to live in his Alabama home.

"I believe that forgiveness is the heart of Christianity. All people make mistakes, especially in crimes of passion," Jacks said.

CNN's Ed Lavandera contributed to this report.

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