What on earth was Mississippi’s outgoing governor Haley Barbour thinking? Much like the President, state governors are vested with the power to pardon criminals. This provision varies in particulars from state to state, but the purpose was to provide a final opportunity to prevent a serious miscarriage of justice. Should the multiple provisions of our justice system designed to protect the innocent fail, as a last resort, the chief executive of a state would have the power to restore balance to the scales of justice.
Several years ago, Illinois Governor Jim Ryan commuted every death sentence in the state. Overriding the will of the people as expressed by their votes for their representatives would carry a heavy political cost, but at least a strong argument could be made at the time that a pattern of prosecutorial misconduct had so tainted the process of justice in that state that the risk of imposing the one irreversible sanction was so great that commutation was the only valid response.
Governor Barbour’s pardon of multiple convicted murderers, however, has no such fig leaf to hide behind. Several of the felons pardoned had served as trustees at the Governor’s mansion, providing services to Barbour, and making his acquaintance. Let’s set aside the question of why on earth convicted violent criminals were allowed to serve in that role. Was there any real question that these felons had in fact committed the offenses for which they were sentenced? Was there some flaw in the proceedings that justified the governor overriding the courts and juries? I think not.
As a political matter, the GOP has long stood as the party of law and order. We’ve seen the political fallout politicians have paid for being seen as soft on crime. Michael Dukakis was savaged in the 1988 primaries for allowing a furlough program that allowed Willie Horton out of prison. Rudy Gulliani was seen as a particularly effective mayor of New York precisely because he made crime reduction the heart and soul of his campaign and his tenure in office. When was the last time a political campaign centered on law and order favored the Democrat as being tough on crime? Especially in the eye-for-an-eye heart of the Bible Belt?
Two years ago, as conservatives and the GOP looked to recover from the drubbing they’d taken in 2008, many names were bandied about as candidates to unseat President Obama in 2012. Haley Barbour was often mentioned as one possible candidate. He chose not to throw his hat in the ring.
With these unfathomable pardons, he’s certainly dashed any hopes he may have had for further electoral office.
I’m strongly in favor of the death penalty. Consequently, I’m also in favor of an expansive power of pardon for chief executives. But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe those politicians should not be held accountable, either at the ballot box, or in the court of public opinion, for their actions.
I think Haley Barbour certainly owes the people of Mississippi an explanation for why he chose to use his authority in the cavalier manner he did.