Thursday, January 12, 2012

200 pardons

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour was once considered a possible candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, despite his strong resemblance to a spoiled squash. At the end of his term of office, Barbour pardoned or gave clemency to more than 200 criminals, including people convicted of murder and other very serious crimes. His predecessor had issued just one pardon.

The Mississippi Attorney General (who happens to be a Democrat) has issued a temporary injunction blocking further prisoner releases, because the state's constitution requires that prisoner requests for pardons be published 30 days beforehand.

The pardon/clemency list includes the brother of New York Jets quarterback Brett Favre. (The brother accidentally killed a friend while driving drunk.) Also pardoned were David Gatlin (recently denied parole), who shot his wife while she held their small son; Anthony McCray, who also shot his wife; socialite Karen Irby, convicted of manslaughter; and Joseph Ozment, who, while committing a robbery, shot a wounded man point blank in the head.

NRA fundamentalists should rejoice: Pardoned individuals are allowed to carry firearms under federal law.

Barbour has issued a statement defending his pardons. You can read it -- festooned with suitably captious commentary -- on a Mississippi-based blog called Cottonmouth.

Barbour's strange activities made me flash on another famous Republican -- Fred Thompson. Although you may know him best as an actor, he was a lawyer before going Hollywood. He played himself in Marie, a fine 1985 film starring Sissy Spacek. The movie tells the story of Marie Ragghianti, who courageously exposed a scandal centering on certain key cronies of Tennessee Governor Ray Blanton, who ran the state from 1975 to 1979. From Wikipedia:
His administration seemed rife with "cronyism", and this became more apparent when Roger Humphreys, a convicted double murderer, was pardoned for his crimes and it became public knowledge that his father was a county chairman for Blanton. It was later discovered that members of Blanton's staff were involved in the apparent sale of pardons.
In January 1979, with his term expiring, the State's Pardon Board began to make a series of pardons that seemed to be either the product of sheer politics or open bribery.
Blanton had fired Marie Ragghianti for exposing the pay-for-pardons scandal. This site has more:
Blanton was never charged in the clemency scandal, but made the ill-advised decision on January 15, 1979 to pardon three prisoners and reduce the sentences of 49 others, including 24 convicted murderers. Receiving the most attention was Roger Humphreys, who had murdered his ex-wife and her lover in 1973 and was not up for parole until 1984. Blanton commuted his sentence to time served. Humphreys, the son of a Blanton campaign manager, had already been subject to cushy treatment, including working as a photographer for the state.
Let's get back to Barbour.

One of the best reviews of the Barbour pardon scandal comes from this site, run by R.S. Ruckman, who specializes in the politics of pardons.
15 of Barbour's recipients had multiple convictions, in multiple years. Almost 30 were found guilty of murder, manslaughter, accessory to murder or the like. One third of them were originally sentenced to life in prison. It appears three literally walked right out of prison (Harper, Kambule and Irby).

Yes, it was a classic example of just about every thing the pardon power should not be. The only thing that seems to be missing, for now, is some hint of "politics" (donors, supporters, friends, relatives, inside influence and the like). But, give it time. Barbour clearly could have spread these decisions over a period of months, if not years, making each one a little more well-considered, a little less suspicious looking and - for those who really were deserving - something barely worth public celebration. But, no, a Republican governor, in the South, and potential presidential nominee has to keep up appearances.
Haley Barbour and his chief of staff will now join the law firm of Butler, Snow, O'Mara, Stevens and Canada.
The firm will rely on Barbour and Hurst’s expertise in economic development, strategic planning and government relations. Barbour also will be working for the BGR Group, a Washington lobbying firm he helped establish before he became governor
You can learn more about BGR in this Talking Points Memo story. These lobbyists are tied in with union-busting, a Milwaulkee energy utility called WE Energies, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. TPM neglects to mention that Walker sold WE Energies to the Koch brothers for "pennies on the dollar."

The Blanton scandal revisited: If the reader will forgive a small side-jaunt into assassination lore, the Ray Blanton scandal of the late 1970s had a strange connection to the murder of Martin Luther King. This site gives part of the story:
Undercover agents, testing how far the administration would go, met with a bodyguard and asked how much it would take to secure the release of James Earl Ray, who had murdered civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. The bodyguard responded that Ray was too high-profile a prisoner for clemency, but it was possible that he could be allowed to escape for the right price (incidentally, Ray did escape in 1977 along with a handful of other inmates; it was unlikely to be a Blanton administration plot, however, since Blanton promptly called in the troops and Ray and his fellow fugitives were recaptured within days).
I have heard -- but cannot now confirm -- that one of the recipients of an otherwise-inexplicable Blanton pardon was a prisoner who helped James Earl Ray to escape. The fact that Blanton called in the troops is neither surprising nor reassuring: Claiming that a prisoner was "shot while trying to escape" is one of the oldest tricks in the book. (There had been several attempts on Ray's life.)

The escape occurred during the House Select Committee on Assassinations hearings. During a little-noticed 1999 civil case brought by Coretta Scott King, it was established that, immediately after Ray's escape, an FBI SWAT team swarmed the woods surrounding Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. Lewis Stokes, Chairman of the HSCA, called Blanton and pressured him to make sure that the FBI did not kill Ray.

I don't know what Stokes said, but he must have found the right words.
Some of Abe Lincoln's underlings were selling pardons for prisoners at Camp Douglas. Pardon scandals have been around a while but it does make you wonder where Barbour's overblown head was at.
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