By Robbie Ward
STARKVILLE, Miss (Reuters) - On his last day as Mississippi governor, conservative Republican Haley Barbour surprised friend and foe by granting more than 200 pardons, clemency or early release for people convicted of crimes including murder, rape and armed robbery.
A former National Republican Committee chairman who considered running for president this year, Barbour's actions included 19 people convicted of murder.
Four of those were inmates who had worked at the governor's mansion doing odd jobs under a program that rewarded good behavior.
Barbour acted on a total of 208 cases, according to information provided by the Mississippi Secretary of State's office on Tuesday.
Among those pardoned was the brother of retired National Football League star quarterback Brett Favre. Earnest Scott Favre was convicted in 1996 of driving while intoxicated resulting in the death of his best friend. He was sentenced to a year of house arrest and two years probation.
While pardons by outgoing governors and presidents are not unusual, the number and the types of crimes stand out, said Marty Wiseman, a Mississippi State University political scientist and director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government.
"That seems very excessive to me," Wiseman said. "I don't recall this many crimes that serious being pardoned by anybody."
Barbour's last actions as governor run counter to his public persona while in office, he said.
"Usually conservative Republicans are so pro-incarceration, pro-serve your time. When somebody like Barbour goes into pardoning it raises some eyebrows," Wiseman said.
Barbour gave no public statement on the decisions. Calls to his office for comment were not returned. Former Lt. Governor Phil Bryant, also a Republican, officially took office as governor during the day on Tuesday.
Until this month, Barbour had issued only five pardons and three indefinite suspended sentences in eight years as governor.
Democratic state leaders and victims' family members said they intend to support legislation limiting the governor's ability to release convicted murderers from prison early.
Jan Withers, National president and spokeswoman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the dozen inmates receiving pardons related to drunk driving related offenses sends the wrong message to victims and their families. Some of the DUI cases involved murder and aggravated death.
"It's a terrible injustice for the family members of victims," Withers said. "MADD believes individuals should be prosecuted to the fullest extent and be held accountable."
Other crimes of those released from prison include sex offenses, conspiracy to commit voter fraud, assault of a law enforcement officer and numerous drug-related offenses.
Wiseman said the extent of Barbour's pardons suggest his time as an elected official has ended.
"He's probably as certain as he could be that he'll never run for anything else again," he said. "That's why the governor doesn't do this walking in the door, he does it walking out."
When he decided not to seek the Republican nomination for the White House, Barbour said he did not want to spend the next decade pursuing the presidency. He noted the long campaign and potentially eight years in office.
(Editing by Greg McCune)