By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Outgoing Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour's unconditional pardons for several convicted murderers still serving prison sentences - among more than 200 acts of clemency in all - was an unusually bold use of executive power, legal experts said on Thursday.
Barbour's pardons, issued in his last days in office, included more than three dozen cases involving violent deaths, including drunken driving accidents, manslaughter, and murder.
While most of the Republican governor's pardons were granted to defendants who had already finished serving their sentences, 26 current inmates were also given pardons, including several convicted in killings.
"It's the combination of things that make it unusual," said P.S. Ruckman, an associate professor of political science at Rock Valley College in Illinois and an expert in pardons. "Pardoning people as you leave office isn't that unusual. But pardoning so many of them at once?"
"The way he did it, he's getting the heat he deserves, I think," Ruckman added.
The move prompted the office of Governor Phil Bryant, who served as Barbour's lieutenant governor and took office on Tuesday, to announce support for a state constitutional amendment to tweak the governor's clemency powers. A judge has also suspended releases of newly pardoned prisoners.
Typically, governors would offer a commutation, which reduces the length of a sentence, rather than a full pardon for convicts still in jail, experts said. A pardon restores certain civil rights, such as the ability to own a gun or obtain state licenses - rights Barbour referred to in explaining his actions.
"These days, if people who are serving sentences do get a full pardon, it's almost invariably because of some suggestion of innocence," said Margaret Colgate Love, who has written a book on pardons.
Many governors have commuted death sentences to life imprisonment, either because they did not support the death penalty or because they believed the death penalty was unwarranted in certain cases.
Illinois Governor George Ryan commuted all of the state's death sentences in 2003, a few years after declaring a moratorium on executions; New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine did the same in 2007 before signing a bill abolishing the death penalty in that state.
Since taking office in 2004, Barbour had previously issued only eight pardons or sentence suspensions. Of the pardons, clemencies or early releases issued in the days before he left office this week, more than 180 were unconditional pardons.
Executive pardons have a rich history of controversy, from President Gerald Ford's decision to pardon Richard Nixon for his involvement in the Watergate scandal to President Bill Clinton's pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich.
Though the concept of clemency has its roots in the monarchical tradition, Ruckman said it was more appropriate to think of pardon power as part of the U.S. system of checks and balances -- in essence, giving the executive branch the ability to correct legislative or judicial injustices.
President Barack Obama has issued one commutation, for a woman sentenced to 22 years for selling crack cocaine, and 22 pardons, for crimes ranging from the illegal sale of alligator skins to a 47-year-old conviction for mutilating U.S. currency.
The presidential power to offer pardons is essentially absolute. Presidents have no obligation to explain their decisions or consult other agencies, though a federal officer, the U.S. Pardon Attorney, processes applications for clemency and offers the president recommendations.
Those convicted of state crimes may seek clemency only from state authorities. In 32 states, the governor has unilateral power to grant pardons, though in some states the governor must consult with an advisory board before issuing a decision.
In eight states, the governor and an advisory board share the power to offer clemency. Ten states put the power in the hands of an executive board that sometimes includes the governor as a sitting member.
Mississippi falls into the first category, giving its governor sole authority to issue pardons. But the state constitution includes a unique provision that requires convicted felons to publish a notice in a local newspaper at least 30 days before their pardon date.
The state attorney general, Jim Hood, has filed a legal challenge to Barbour's pardons, arguing that some or all of the defendants had failed to meet that obligation.
On Thursday, a Mississippi judge temporarily halted the release of 21 inmates and required five inmates already released to appear in court later this month to provide evidence they had given proper notice.
"In modern Mississippi jurisprudence, I know of no other case that's been challenged in this manner," said Phillip Broadhead, a clinical law professor at the University of Mississippi Law School. "This is a very unique situation."
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Eddie Evans and Cynthia Johnston)