By Robbie Ward
STARKVILLE, Miss (Reuters) - Mississippi's attorney general is offering a reward for information that helps locate a convicted murderer who vanished since his release from prison earlier this month after being pardoned by former Governor Haley Barbour.
Attorney General Jim Hood, who has challenged the legality of that pardon and around 200 others Barbour made in the final days of his term, also said the files for Joseph Ozment and 19 others were missing.
Authorities began looking for Ozment after the former inmate did not appear this week at a court hearing related to the pardons. Hood has offered an unspecified cash reward for information regarding Ozment's whereabouts, a spokeswoman for the attorney general said.
Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman, sparked controversy by granting 222 pardons, commutations and suspensions, generating debate about how much power a governor should have to pardon criminals convicted of serious crimes.
Barbour has defended his clemency decisions and said he was confident they were all valid and blamed political opponents for much of the controversy.
Ozment, 40, had been serving a life sentence for the 1993 robbery and shooting death of a store clerk in northwest Mississippi. He was one of five prisoners who had worked at the governor's mansion who saw their life prison terms lifted after receiving full pardons by Barbour.
Hood is seeking to void most of the pardons granted by Barbour because not enough public notice was given in the communities where the crimes were committed. He received a court order to temporarily block the pardons.
A judge allowed the five freed men, including Ozment, to remain out of prison while the matter is pending but required them to report daily to authorities. Ozment has not done so, according to corrections officials.
Hood's spokeswoman said the Attorney General's Office has not received files for 20 of the people pardoned by Barbour.
Laura Hipp, Barbour's spokeswoman, said on Thursday that all of the files related to pardons were turned over to Hood's staff on January 11.
(Reporting By Robbie Ward; Editing By Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Johnston)