JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — 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 and a robber 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. Most of the people pardoned had served their sentences years ago, but crime victims were outraged and created a furor that lasted for weeks.
Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood 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 for 30 days.
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.
"In this decision, the Supreme Court has reaffirmed more than a century of settled law in our state. But this was not only about the power of the pardon or even the power of the office, but about the ability of a governor to grant mercy," Barbour said in a statement.
The Supreme Court's ruling hit crime victims hard.
"I hope Haley Barbour and the Supreme Court justices can sleep at night," said Joann Martin, a probation officer from Fort Worth, Texas, whose sister was killed by one of the pardoned trusties.
She thanked Hood for trying to send the killer back to jail.
"God has the final say and that's all I have to say about it," she said.
Hood said in a statement that he will pursue an initiative to amend the Constitution "to make it very clear that the judicial branch is responsible for enforcing the 30-day notification period in the future" and called on victims groups, law enforcement and other volunteers to help obtain signatures to put a measure on the ballot.
"We do respect the decision of the court, but feel deeply for how it must weigh on the victims and their families. It is these victims and family members who have lost today and the criminals who have won," Hood said.
"As Supreme Court Justice Mike Randolph wrote in his dissent, which was supported by Chief Justice William Waller and Justice Randy Pierce: 'Today's decision is a stunning victory for some lawless convicted felons, and an immeasurable loss for the law-abiding citizens of our State.'"
Barbour's statement said he understands "the natural feelings of victims and their families" and recognizes that pardons are generally unpopular.
"Nevertheless, these were decisions based on repentance, rehabilitation, and redemption, leading to forgiveness and the right defined and given by the state constitution to the governor to offer such people a second chance," he said.
Of those pardoned, 10 were incarcerated at the time. Others just wanted to clear their names or have their rights restored.
The five former Governor's Mansion trusties had already been released on their pardons by the time Hood persuaded a lower court judge to issue a restraining order. The order kept five other inmates in prison and required the trusties to check in every 24 hours and show up for court hearings. One of the trusties, however, Joseph Ozment moved to Laramie, Wyo., and refused to come back.
Ozment'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.
Mississippi Department of Corrections spokeswoman Tara Booth said the inmates who had been held on the temporary restraining order will be released 48 hours after law enforcement and prosecutors are notified in the county where they were convicted.
The ruling left some crime victims speechless.
"I just really haven't absorbed it yet," said Randy Walker, who was shot in the head in 1993 by one of the trusties. 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.
Hood had hoped to invalidate the trusties' pardons and about 165 others, who he said didn't properly publish their notices. 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.
In the end, a majority of 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.
Associated Press writer Jack Elliott Jr. contributed to this report.