JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Outgoing Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has pardoned at least four convicted killers who worked as inmate trusties at the Governor’s Mansion, including a man who was denied parole less than two weeks ago.
Relatives of three victims told The Associated Press on Monday that state corrections officials notified them over the weekend that the men convicted in the crimes were to be released this past Sunday.
Barbour’s office hasn’t responded to numerous messages. Barbour, a Republican, leaves office on Tuesday.
Copies of the pardons filed with the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office were released Monday. They show he has pardoned at least five men, the convicted killers and a man serving life for robbery.
The inmates are David Gatlin, convicted of killing his estranged wife in 1993; Joseph Ozment, convicted in 1994 of killing a man during a robbery; Anthony McCray, convicted in 2001 of killing his wife; Charles Hooker, sentenced to life in 1992 for murder; and Nathan Kern, sentenced to life in 1982 for burglary after at least two prior convictions.
The pardons outraged victims’ relatives as well as Democratic lawmakers, who called for an end to the custom of governors’ issuing such end-of-tenure pardons.
“Serving your sentence at the Governor’s Mansion where you pour liquor, cook and clean should not earn a pardon for murder,” Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, a Democrat, posted Monday on his Facebook page.
While Barbour’s office hasn’t responded to messages about the pardons, he told the AP for a 2008 story that releasing the trusties who live and work at the mansion is a tradition in Mississippi that goes back decades. Trusties are prisoners who earn privileges through good behavior.
Joann Martin, a probation officer from Fort Worth, Texas, said McCray killed her sister.
McCray pleaded guilty in 2001 to killing Jennifer Bonds McCray, 38, at Ramsey’s Cafe in McComb. The couple apparently had been arguing before the shooting occurred. McCray left the cafe and returned with a gun. Jennifer McCray was shot once in the back.
“It’s very painful for my family that he was released. When he killed her, she had a 3-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son who have been raised by my other sister,” Martin said. “It’s a shame before God. It’s almost like you kill somebody and nobody cares.”
Mark McAbee said Barbour pardoned the man who killed his uncle, Ricky Montgomery.
McAbee said Ozment was sentenced to life in 1994 after robbing the store with several other men.
“One of the other ones shot my uncle three times. He was crawling toward Joseph Ozment for help. He didn’t know Joseph Ozment was involved. He was crawling to him for help. Joseph Ozment put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger twice,” McAbee said.
He called the pardon “a slap in the face.”
Earlier Monday, the Mississippi Department of Corrections confirmed that Barbour had pardoned David Gatlin, convicted of killing his estranged wife and sentenced to life in 1993. MDOC officials haven’t responded to questions about the other pardons.
The Mississippi Parole Board turned down the 40-year-old Gatlin on Dec. 27, according to a letter dated Jan. 4 and obtained by AP. The letter did not explain why the Parole Board rejected Gatlin’s parole request. It said he was due for another parole hearing in October.
Shannon Warnock, chair of the parole board, didn’t immediately respond to a message Monday.
Gatlin was sentenced to life in prison in the slaying of Tammy Ellis Gatlin in 1993 and the shooting of her long-time friend, Randy Walker. Walker survived. The shootings took place in Brandon, Miss.
Walker’s mother, Glenda Walker, said Monday that her son is afraid now that Gatlin is free.
“I have to watch him be almost paranoid when people knock on his door,” she said Monday in a phone interview.
Walker said Gatlin shot his estranged wife while she was holding their young baby, then shot Randy Walker in the head.
“He left that little baby on his dead mother’s body,” Glenda Walker said. “It was a horrendous murder.”
Democrats have pounced on the pardon.
Barbour frequently refers to Mississippi as “the safest state in America for an unborn child.”
“So much for being pro-life when you pardon people who take other people’s lives,” Presley, the public service commissioner, said in an interview. “In one case, the lady had a 6-month-old baby in her arms when she was murdered.”
State Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, also criticized Barbour’s action.
“I know that people will say that lame duck pardons are a political tradition but this is one tradition that needs to go away. The people of Mississippi and their justice system deserve better,” he said in a statement Sunday.
Members of the Mississippi House Democratic Caucus will hold a press conference at 3 p.m. today at the Mississippi Capitol Rotunda. They plan to announce legislation to prevent the premature pardon or release of murderers. Democratic members of the legislature will be joined by family members of victims.
Barbour created a similar stir by releasing convicted killer Michael Graham in 2008. The Republican later defended the move as “the custom” of governors to cut short the sentences of the mansion’s inmate workers if they behave.
Barbour’s three predecessors, dating back to 1988, gave some type of early release or pardon to a total of 12 such prisoners. All but two of them had been convicted of murder. One was serving time for forgery and another for armed robbery and aggravated assault.
Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps told the AP for a 2008 story that the inmates who end up working at the Governor’s Mansion are often convicted murderers because they are the ones who serve long enough sentences to build the trust needed for such a task.