Pardon No More? Mississippi's New Governor Eyes Tougher Rules for Clemency

Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo

The longstanding Mississippi custom of pardoning inmates working at the governor's mansion might be on its last leg.

The state's newly minted governor, Phil Bryant, will not follow in the footsteps of his predecessors in granting clemency to prisoners who work at his new residence, his spokesman said, according to local reports.

Former Gov. Haley Barbour caused a national uproar when he granted clemency to 208 convicted felons as he left office in early January. Five prisoners pardoned by the Republican governor worked at the governor's mansion for eight years. Four of them were convicted murderers and one an armed robber.

Barbour has said several times that it's customary for the state's governor to pardon such "trustees," well-behaved inmates who clean, work in the kitchen, wait tables and wash cars at the governor's mansion.

But the program might be headed for a change under Bryant, who took office Tuesday under the shadow of Barbour's controversy.

"The day Phil Bryant was sworn in, the mansion trusty program ended in its antiquated 50-year-old form," his spokesman, Mick Bullock, said.

The Republican governor also plans to discontinue the practice of inmates' staying the night at the mansion and is "working towards phasing out" the tradition of violent offenders working there. And he has said he will look at narrowing the guidelines to provide clemency altogether, after the brouhaha that was created with Barbour's unexpected move.

"My request is that we restrict to very narrow guidelines the ability to provide pardons or clemency," Bryant said Thursday. "My standard will be that it's only for cases where there is clear and convincing evidence that someone has been wrongly convicted."

The new governor might have some help in the state legislature. Both a Democrat and a Republican state senator have drafted legislation attempting to reduce the governor's power in granting clemency and barring violent criminals and sex offenders from working at the governor's mansion. The move was spurred after another controversial decision in 2008 by Barbour to pardon trusty Michael David Graham, who served 19 years of his life sentence for killing his ex-wife. Graham walked free after working eight years in the governor's mansion.

Barbour's latest move irked members of his own party again.

"We want to make sure we do something smart, that's not knee-jerk," state Sen. Michael Watson told The Commercial Appeal. "We want to make sure we're targeting folks who really have no business being pardoned."

The state legislature is looking at whether a constitutional amendment is required to alter the clemency laws, a move that Bryant supports. In Mississippi, the parole board provides recommendations to the governor, who makes the final decision as to who should be pardoned. Barbour has defended his own controversial action on the grounds that more than 90 percent of the convicts to whom he granted clemency were recommended by the parole board.

Mississippi is one of the last remaining states to offer the "trusty" program that allows convicted felons to work at the residence of the state's highest office holder. It is a tradition that is unique to the South and is partially rooted in the region's Christian custom.

South Carolina had a similar program until 2001, when inmates were found to be having sex in the governor's residence.

In his first interview since he granted the controversial pardons, Barbour said Friday that Mississippians are mostly Christian people. "I believe in second chances and I try hard to be forgiving," he said. "I am very comfortable and totally at peace with these pardons."

He added that he didn't see the pardoned prisoners as a threat to society. The state's Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood, however, sees it differently. Hood is challenging the pardon on the grounds that the inmates did not publish a 30-day legal notice requesting clemency, as is required by state law.