Miss. court upholds ex-Gov. Barbour's pardons

Former Gov. Haley Barbour tells reporters that he's "very comfortable" with his decision to grant pardons or other clemency to more than 200 people in his last days in office at a news conference Jan. 13, 2012, in Ridgeland, Miss. AP

(CBS/AP) JACKSON, Miss. - The Mississippi Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the pardons issued by former Gov. Haley Barbour during his final days in office, including those of four convicted killers who had worked at the Governor's Mansion.

Barbour, a Republican who once considered running for president, pardoned 198 people before finishing his second term Jan. 10. Of those pardoned, 10 were incarcerated at the time, including the four convicted killers and a robber who worked at the Governor's Mansion.

The five former Governor's Mansion trusties had already been released by the time Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood persuaded a lower court judge to issue a restraining order that kept the five other inmates in prison.

Mississippi Department of Corrections spokeswoman Tara Booth said those inmates will be released 48 hours after law enforcement and prosecutors are notified in the county where they were convicted.

"Once all the required notifications have been completed, the inmates will be released," she said.

Hood had challenged the pardons based on the argument that many of them didn't follow a requirement in the state Constitution to publish notices in newspapers.

In their 6-3 opinion, the Mississippi Supreme Court wrote "we are compelled to hold that — in each of the cases before us — it fell to the governor alone to decide whether the Constitution's publication requirement was met." The court also said it couldn't overturn the pardons because of the Constitution's separation of powers of the different branches of government.

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Hood's temporary restraining order had required the trusties to check in with corrections officials every 24 hours and show up for court hearings. One of the trusties, however, convicted murderer Joseph Ozement moved to Laramie, Wyo., and refused to come back.

Ozement's attorney, Robert Moxley, said Thursday his client felt like "he wasn't really free until today."

"I asked him if he could do a cartwheel and he said he's too old. But he sure is pleased that it is all over. He has a very humanistic outlook on it. He said it was hard on the victims' families, it was hard on the offenders' families, but he hopes everyone can just go on with their lives," Moxley said.

Randy Walker was shot in the head in 1993 by one of the trusties who Barbour pardoned. That former inmate, David Gatlin, also fatally shot his own estranged wife as she held the couple's baby. Walker and the woman were friends.

Walker said the court's decision had been weighing heavily on his mind and now he's just trying to understand what happened.

"I just really haven't absorbed it yet," Walker said.

Hood had said the Governor's Mansion trusties and about 165 others didn't meet the requirements of the Mississippi Constitution, which says people seeking pardons must publish notices for 30 days in a newspaper.

Hood contended 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 weren't valid.

Hood did not immediately respond to messages left Thursday with his spokeswoman.

In the end, the Supreme Court said it was up to the governor to decide if the pardoned inmates did what they were supposed to do. In addition to the pardons issued in his final days in office, Barbour also granted medical release and conditional clemency to some inmates, but they weren't required to give public notice of their release.

Miss. Gov.'s pardons stirring controversy

Many in Mississippi remained outraged by the pardons, especially those Barbour gave to four convicted killers, including Gatlin and Ozment, as well as Charles Hooker and Anthony McCray.

Current Gov. Phil Bryant, who had already stopped the practice of inmate trustees living at the Governor's Mansion, ended a decades-old program Thursday of allowing trusties to work there. The announcement came after intense criticism of Barbour's decision Jan. 6 to pardon four murderers and one robber who were mansion trusties during his second term.

Bipartisan groups of legislators have proposed changing the constitution or state laws to limit the gubernatorial pardon power.

Bryant has said he favors some sort of limits. For example, he said he might favor a constitutional amendment that would allow a governor to singlehandedly grant pardons only in cases in which there's clear evidence of innocence. Otherwise, Bryant said it might be best to have a board review pardon requests and make recommendations.

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