Miss high court hears challenge to Barbour pardons

By Emily Wagster Pettus

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Feb. 9 2012 4:36 p.m. MST

FILE - This Jan. 9, 2012 photo shows gunshot survivor Randy Walker, with his relatives and those of Tammy Ellis Gatlin who was killed in the same incident caused by recently pardoned killer David Gatlin, calling for an end to such end-of-tenure pardons by outgoing governors at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss. A month after former Gov. Haley Barbour ended two terms in office by pardoning nearly 200 people including convicted killers, Mississippi's highest court will take up the issue of whether those pardons complied with the letter of the law.

Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. — Feuding attorneys asked the Mississippi Supreme Court on Thursday to determine the validity of pardons that Haley Barbour gave to convicted killers and other convicts during his final days as governor.

Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. said the court would not rule Thursday, but he didn't say when a decision would come.

"We want them to take enough time to do it right," said Randy Walker, who objects to the pardons. Walker was shot in the head in 1993 by one of the men Barbour set free last month. That former inmate, David Gatlin, also fatally shot his own estranged wife as she held the couple's baby.

At the heart of the dispute is Section 124 of the Mississippi Constitution, which says "no pardon shall be granted" by the governor until the convicted felon applying for the pardon publishes notice of that application for 30 days in a newspaper in or near the county where the crime was committed.

Justices could uphold the pardons, as requested by a private attorney representing Republican Barbour. Or they could declare the pardons invalid, as requested by Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood. If they agree with Hood that the 30-day publication is a must, they could send the pardons back to a lower court, where a circuit judge could hold a trial to determine whether the pardons met those requirements.

Hood contends that if ads weren't run in daily papers every day for 30 days, or weekly newspapers once a week for five weeks, the pardons aren't valid.

"It's a constitutional right of the people to have that notice," Hood told the nine justices Thursday during more than three hours of oral arguments.

Barbour, who once considered a 2012 White House run, was limited to two terms as governor. He pardoned 198 people before finishing his second term Jan. 10, including four convicted murderers and a robber who worked as trusties at the Governor's Mansion. His actions outraged victims' families.

Most of the people he pardoned were already out of prison, and some had finished serving their sentences decades ago. The five trusties were released from custody before Hood filed a lawsuit challenging the pardons. A circuit judge granted Hood's request for a temporary restraining order that blocked the release of five other convicted felons who received pardons, and they remain in prison pending the outcome of the legal battle.

Barbour was not in the courtroom during Thursday's arguments, nor were the five former trusties, one of whom has gone to Wyoming.

Several relatives of people killed by the pardoned trusties were in the courtroom. Mary McAbee, whose brother was slain, said afterward that she's praying that the justices "will listen and have their hearts open" to God.

Waller admonished attorneys at the beginning of the hearing to focus their arguments narrowly on the legal questions at hand.

"I don't want any political sound bites. I don't want any jury arguments. No grandstanding. No sniping. Everybody understand?" Waller said. The nine justices are elected in nonpartisan contests.

Attorney Thomas Fortner, who represents four of the former trusties, said past cases suggest pardons are not reviewable by the courts.

"The governor, as the chief executive, is granted the power to pardon and is the judge of the propriety of the publication," Fortner said. "The constitution does not give the power to anybody to review that."

Charles Griffin, an attorney for Barbour, also said the pardons are not reviewable.

"This case is not about Haley Barbour. This case is not about General Hood. And this case is not about the individuals who have received pardons. This case is about the separation of powers under the Mississippi Constitution," Griffin said.

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