Kentucky: outgoing governor pardons killer whose brother hosted fundraiser

Josh Wood in Louisville, Kentucky
Photograph: Timothy D Easley/AP

Days after leaving office, the former Kentucky governor Matt Bevin is facing widespread backlash and calls for an investigation following a number of controversial pardons of violent offenders on his way out the door.

Pardons are traditional at the end of a governor’s term – and most of the Republican’s more than 400 pardons were for drug offenses. But a number of the pardons were for particularly violent crimes, like a woman who gave birth in a flea market porta-potty and dumped her newborn into the toilet’s septic tank; a man who hired a hitman to murder his business partner in front of his family; a man convicted of beheading a woman and stuffing her body in a 55-gallon drum; a man convicted last year of raping a nine-year-old child; and a man convicted in a home invasion homicide whose brother hosted a fundraiser for the governor last year.

In that last case, Patrick Baker was pardoned just two years into his 19-year sentence for an incident in which he and several others impersonated law enforcement officers to gain entry to a home before shooting and killing a man inside. Two others imprisoned for the crime were not pardoned, despite prosecutors saying that Baker was the one who pulled the trigger.

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In announcing the pardon, Bevin questioned the evidence presented in the case and the jury’s decision to convict Baker.

“The evidence supporting his conviction is sketchy at best,” wrote Bevin in the pardon. “I am not convinced that justice has been served on the death of Donald Mills, nor am I convinced that the evidence has proven the involvement of Patrick Baker as murderer.”

Bevin’s conclusion is starkly at odds with the judge who sentenced Baker, David Williams, who according to the Louisville Courier-Journal said: “I’ve never seen a more compelling or complete case … the evidence was just overwhelming.”

Baker’s brother Eric hosted Bevin at a fundraiser for the then governor at his home last year, raising $21,500, according to the paper, which has sparked accusations that the pardon was a favor, not the righting of a wrongful conviction.

In a letter to the Republican attorney general-elect, Daniel Cameron, on Friday, the Democratic senate minority leader, Morgan McGarvey, and the state representative Chris Harris asked for a special prosecutor or bipartisan special prosecuting team to investigate Bevin’s pardons, particularly the Baker pardon.

The power to pardon “was granted to serve justice and hold public officeholders accountable, not to grant political favors to powerful friends and campaign donors”, they wrote. “The appearance of corruption in this instance is overwhelming and cannot be overlooked or brushed aside.”

In the case of Micah Schoettle, who was found guilty last year of raping a nine-year-old girl, Bevin also lashed out against the evidence and the jury’s decision.

“Micah Schoettle was tried and convicted of a heinous crime based only on testimony that was not supported by any physical evidence,” wrote Bevin in his pardon. “This case was investigated and prosecuted in a manner that was sloppy at best. I do not believe that the charges against Mr Schoettle are true.”

Rob Sanders, the commonwealth’s attorney who prosecuted the case, told the Courier-Journal that Bevin’s pardon was an “irresponsible manipulation of the justice system”.

“I guess Matt Bevin thinks he’s smarter than 12 citizens that heard the actual evidence,” he said. “I’ve got news for him: child molesting rarely happens in front of witnesses or leaves physical evidence. If we don’t pursue those cases, 99% of child rapists would never be prosecuted.”

On Friday evening, Bevin responded to the controversy with a Twitter thread, defending the pardons by saying that he had spent “hundreds of hours” reviewing applications for pardons and saying that he would welcome anybody he pardoned as a “co-worker, neighbor, or to sit beside me or any member of my family in a church pew or at a public event”.

He also appeared to lash out at those who accused him of corruption in pardoning Baker, whose brother hosted a fundraiser for him.

“The myriad of statements and suggestions that financial or political considerations played a part in the decision making process, are both highly offensive and entirely false,” he said. “To repeat such uncorroborated rumors and lies is reprehensible.”

But Bevin was finding few defenders, even within his own party.

On Friday, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, said Bevin’s pardons were “completely inappropriate”.

“I expect he had the power to do it, but looking at the examples of people who were incarcerated as a result of heinous crimes – no, I don’t approve of it,” the Republican senator told reporters in Kentucky’s capital of Frankfort.

Bevin did not leave office quietly following his narrow loss to the Democrat Andy Beshear in last month’s election. Known as a pugnacious governor, Bevin, who campaigned with Donald Trump in the days leading up to the vote, disputed the election results and, without evidence, charged that widespread voter fraud occurred, a move that stoked rightwing conspiracy theories about the election.

Beshear was sworn into office just after midnight on Tuesday, but his first days in office have been overshadowed by his predecessor’s pardons.

On Thursday, Bevin told the Washington Post he was “a big believer in second chances” after the paper asked about the pardons.