NEW: A surviving victim says he's "totally in shock" after the ruling
NEW: A lawyer for the remaining inmates says they'll be released by Friday
"He wanted everyone to know he was the big man, and he proved it," a victim's sister says
Barbour says pardons were "based on repentance, rehabilitation, and redemption"
Mississippi’s Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the controversial pardons of more than 200 convicts that former Gov. Haley Barbour granted on his way out of office, rejecting a challenge by the state’s attorney general.
In a 77-page, 6-3 ruling Thursday afternoon, the court found the pardons “may not be set aside or voided by the judicial branch.” Attorney General Jim Hood had argued that no proper notice had been posted in newspapers, but the court found the final decision rested “solely with the governor.”
“We are mindful that the victims and their families are entitled to be interested in the subject matter of this case, and they are undoubtedly – and understandably – concerned with its outcome,” Justice Jess Dickinson wrote for the majority. But in the cases before them, “It fell to the governor alone to decide whether the Constitution’s publication requirement was met.”
Randy Walker, who survived a shooting by one of the men who was freed, told CNN sister network HLN that he was “totally in shock.”
“I thought it was pretty clear-cut that the constitution pretty clearly says one thing, and the justices went another way, as did Barbour,” Walker said.
In a statement issued Thursday afternoon, Barbour said the court “reaffirmed more than a century of settled law in our state,” but acknowledged that his decision “has been difficult” for many of the inmates’ victims.
But in a dissenting opinion, Justice Michael Randolph called the decision “a stunning victory for some lawless convicted felons, and an immeasurable loss for the law-abiding citizens of our state.”
Hood argued that the state Constitution required that for a pardon to be valid, notices be filed, each day, for 30 days in newspapers where their crimes were committed. But during a February Supreme Court hearing, Barbour’s lawyers argued that previous state court rulings had found the 30-day notice rule was “an unconstitutional encroachment” on the governor’s power.
Thursday’s ruling is the final word on the case, but Hood said he would seek to get the notice requirement restored to the state charter.
“We do respect the decision of the Court, but feel deeply for how it must weigh on the victims and their families. It is these victims and family members who have lost today and the criminals who have won,” he said in a written statement, echoing Randolph’s dissent.
Among the 214 inmates Barbour pardoned before he left office in January were four convicted murderers who had worked as “trusties” at the governor’s mansion. Critics argued that the governor failed to consider the families of their victims before freeing them.
All four and an armed robber also pardoned by Barbour have remained free while the issue worked their way through the courts, with their whereabouts monitored daily since January. They are now free under Thursday’s decision, and five other inmates who had remained behind bars awaiting a ruling will be released soon.
Ed Blackmon, a lawyer who represented two of those still held, said he expected his clients would be released by Friday.
“Family members are very anxious to have them released,” he said.
One of the men, Azikiwe Kambule, is a South African national, and plans to return home upon his release.
“I would encourage him to leave immediately,” Blackmon said.
The remainder of those pardoned had already served their time.
One of the pardoned trusties was David Gatlin, who had been serving a life sentence for killing his estranged wife Tammy while she held their 6-week-old baby. Walker was wounded in the same attack.
Tammy Gatlin’s sister, Tiffany Brewer, called Thursday’s ruling “so unfair.”
“I feel like my sister was let down. I think Barbour just wanted to show he had the power to do this. He didn’t care about my family or any of the other families. He wanted everyone to know he was the big man, and he proved it,” Brewer said.
Barbour has defended his pardons and said the former inmates had been rehabilitated. He said the case was not only about the power of the governor’s office, “but about the ability of a governor to grant mercy.”
“As I’ve stated from the beginning, I recognize and respect the natural feelings of victims and their families and I know this has been difficult for many of them,” Barbour said in his statement Thursday. “That is why pardons are always subject to a lot of criticism and are generally unpopular. Nevertheless, these were decisions based on repentance, rehabilitation, and redemption, leading to forgiveness and the right defined and given by the state constitution to the governor to offer such people a second chance.”
And his lawyer, Charles Griffin, called the court’s decision – including the dissents and concurrences – “one of the most thoughtful and scholarly opinions I have ever read from any court.”
CNN’s Joe Sutton contributed to this report.