Pardons, Forgiveness and America’s Justice

A Christian governor, Haley Barbour, pardoned a bundle of criminals and he did so on the basis of his Christian theology of forgiveness. What he did is a tradition in Mississippi.

What say you?

“The historical power of clemency by the governor to pardon felons is rooted in the Christian idea of giving second chances,” said the two-term governor who left office last week after filing the pardons and sentence commutations, including that of 17 murderers, with the Secretary of State’s Office.

“I’m not saying I’ll be perfect, that nobody who received clemency will ever do anything wrong. I’m not infallible and nobody else is,” Boston Herald quoted him as saying Friday.

Barbour told reporters that his state had Jews, Hindus, Muslims as well as atheists and agnostics, “but most Mississippians profess to be Christians of some kind.” He said he and his wife, Marsha, are “evangelical Christians, Presbyterians.” And Christianity, he added, “teaches us forgiveness and second chances. I believe in second chances. And I try hard to be forgiving.”

But Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, saw the former Republican governor’s move as possibly being unconstitutional. He went to court Wednesday to stop the releases, alleging violation of a required notification to the public. The release of 21 inmates was put on hold pending an enquiry….

“Let’s get the facts straight. Of the 215 who received clemency, 189 were not let out of jail. They were already out of jail,” the former governor said. Of the 26 inmates still in custody, 10 were granted full pardons, 13 were released on medical grounds, and one was granted suspension of sentence, one conditional and indefinite suspension of sentence and one conditional clemency.

Five murderers who were granted clemency worked as trusties in the governor’s office.

Barbour acknowledged that his decision could have hurt families of the victims. “I understand and recognize that these families and had love ones who were the victims of terrible crimes … and I sympathize with the fact that this hurts them, that they lost somebody like that and that they’re not going to forget it and they want vengeance,” he told Fox News. But he added that people who “ask for forgiveness of their sins, redeem themselves” should be given a second chance.

He questioned why Hood didn’t raise any objection when former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove released convicted killers who worked at the Governor’s Mansion. He also clarified that inmates assigned by the Mississippi Department of Corrections to work at the governor’s office are mostly men who committed crimes of passion and do not have criminal tendencies. It’s a tradition in the state for governors to free trusties who work at the Governor’s Mansion, he said. “I am very comfortable and totally at peace with these pardons, including those at the mansion.”

Barbour said he had “absolute confidence” in those released and that “I’d let my grandchildren play with these five men.” He recalled that at age 10 he was fond of an inmate, Leon Turner, who was assigned by then Gov. Paul B. Johnson to look after his grandfather, a Circuit Court judge, who had a neurological disease. “When my older brothers and I were growing up, and our cousins, like federal Judge William Barbour, Leon took care of us,” Barbour said. “He helped raise us. He was our playmate, our friend. My grandmother built him a house for his old age, and his wife’s old age. I watched the power of a second chance and what it did for Leon Turner.”

 

 

 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Larry Barber

    The need for politicians to prove they are “tough” on crime is one of the banes of our system. Unfortunately too many voters, including many Christians, fall for it. I suspect that the Attorney General is getting ready to for an election, possible for the seat that Barbour is vacating (AG = Aspiring Governor).

  • Robert A

    I was surprised by the reaction…then I remembered people don’t actually read the whole story anymore. Once I listened to and read up on all the details, including perspectives from several inmates, I was immediately thankful for Gov Barbour’s actions.

    Historically we used to give pardons and communtations all the time in this nation. It has fallen out of practice as we’ve become more detatched from the people impacted by bad decisions. There is something biblical about forgiveness when one has shown they are changed.

    I’m thankful for Gov. Barbour doing this, I wish we saw it more in appropriate cases.

  • T

    I couldn’t help but remember a conversation from O Brother Where Art Thou?:

    Pete: The Preacher said it absolved us.
    Ulysses Everett McGill: For him, not for the law. I’m surprised at you, Pete, I gave you credit for more brains than Delmar.
    Delmar O’Donnell: But they was witnesses that seen us redeemed.
    Ulysses Everett McGill: That’s not the issue Delmar. Even if that did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi’s a little more hard-nosed.

    Humor aside, I think most Christians in Mississippi prefer the government, not to be secular, but to be more OT religious than NT religious when it comes to dealing with criminals. Plus, it’s easier to be unmerciful to generic “criminals” on “principle.” The more one reads the stories of the actual people pardoned, let alone gets to know the nitty gritty details of the “justice” system as a whole, both for offenders and victims, the more one begins to hope for better.

  • Ed Holm

    this is the first full discussion I have seen on the subject and I must admit that when I first heard the news, I wondered what the Gov was up to but I think what he says makes sense. How can we seek God’s forgiveness when we have none ourselves. My sense is that unforgiveness is the “unforgiveable sin” and that it reveals much about the true conversion of one’s heart or not. Yes, I am in favor of the pardons.

  • T

    Also, FYI, what he did (pardon people on his way out of office) is traditional in Mississippi. BUT, there was nothing traditional about the number/quantity that he pardoned. It’s that he granted clemency to 215 folks instead of 5 or 10 or 12. That’s what caused the uproar. Given the number of people in Mississippi prisons (about 21,000, if my source is correct), and given the information in the post above, I think the uproar is misguided.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    We can only judge based on his information. He may the governor with the worst set of values, or the one with the best set of values. Hard to tell from here.

  • Pat Pope

    I believe in redemption, very much so. But I wonder, particularly with the ones who committed the most heinous of crimes like shooting a loved one while she held their baby, was there work done within the prison system pointing to his readiness to be released? And I don’t just mean work at the governor’s mansion. Had he and others like him been evaluated by prison personnel to warrant the finding that he was ready for release from his previous sentence? Also, for every expert on one side of the issue, you can find others for the other side and there was someone on CNN last night arguing against those who commit crimes of passion and their propensity for committing a crime again. I personally would just want to be assured if I were a victim’s family member or a resident of the state, that this issue was thoroughly researched before the pardons were made. I still may not agree with the pardons, but at least I could know that they were thorough in their decision-making.

  • Jon Altman

    I live in Mississippi. I didn’t vote for Barbour ever. The disappointment in him by those who DID vote for him is something to behold.

    His explanation comes across to me as so incoherent that I wonder if HE knows really why he did it. It strains credulity that he or his staff could have done the “due diligence” necessary to grant clemency to that many people.

    I’d also note that he presided over more than one execution during his eight years. No talk of “forgiveness” came from him during those times.

  • Richard

    I guess the Sermon on the Mount can be a way to live in the real world after all, imagine that…

  • Rick

    Since I am not in the shoes of the victims/families of victims, I am not sure how I feel about it.

  • Jon Altman

    News about the pardons came out late last Monday night-early Tuesday morning. Barbour’s explanation was not offered until Friday-after several days of uproar-mostly from people who had supported Barbour and felt betrayed. There was an appeal to “Christian compassion and forgiveness.” There was also an appeal to “fiscal conservatism,” as some of those granted early release were dialysis patients whose care was being completely paid for by the MS Department of Corrections. On the “outside,” dialysis care is paid for by Medicare and Medicaid (i.e. mostly by the Federal government). Many of those pardoned had already served their sentences and had been out of jail for several years. Mississippi is one of those states that permanently disenfranchises persons convicted of certain, but not all, felonies. This is a legacy of “Jim Crow,” as the named felonies were those most likely to be committed by African Americans. A pardon is the only way to restore voting rights, the right to certain professional licenses and, crucially for Mississippi, the right to own a gun.

    Again, all those facts are possible factors, but the perception was that someone who had made his reputation on keeping people “safe” suddenly seemed to not care about that. I’ve concluded that Barbour 1. Doesn’t know himself why he issued the pardons and commutations or 2. Had some OTHER reason he doesn’t wish to disclose.
    I’d love to think he was suddenly struck with an impulse toward “Christian compassion and forgiveness,” but the rest of his public career argues against that.

  • DLS

    I’m generally in favor of this (though not based Christianity), but I also wonder how many supporters of this would be comfortable if the released moved in next door. I suspect it gets a bit different at that point.

  • Tim

    Check out Everett Wothington’s book on justice and forgiveness.

    He is a psychology professor at VCU, a Methodist, a leading expert on forgiveness, and… His mother was murdered so this subject is not just academic for him

  • Jon Altman

    One of the persons given clemency (not a pardon) was the ex-wife of a very wealthy Jacksonian. The woman was driving drunk (with her also drunk husband in the passenger seat) when they collided with a vehicle being driven by a resident physician. He and his fiancee (also a physician) were killed. Due to the wealth and “social prominence” of those two and the obvious lost potential of the two dead doctors, the case attracted HUGE press. The woman received a very harsh sentence that she had just begun serving (less than a year). Barbour commuted the sentence to two years’ house arrest and two years’ supervised probation. It’s the kind of thing that made folks wonder what was going on. In a possibly unrelated development, the woman’s ex-husband (the one with the big time wealth and social prominence) was found dead in his home just tonight-an apparent suicide.

    Some of the others pardoned were men who had killed wives, ex-wives and girlfriends in “crimes of passion.” Again, questions were raised about his thought process that have not really been adequately answered.

  • Percival

    Couldn’t they be forgiven and given a second chance while remaining in prison? Second chances don’t mean you always get a do-over. In fact, we never get a do-over unless it’s Groundhog’s Day.

  • JJobe

    Does forgiveness depend on our readiness or degree of our sin?

    I agree with Percival that forgiveness doesn’t always mean we get a do over and would add that getting released from jail pardoned or not would most likely still face those pardoned with consequences of their actions. For instance when applying for a job they would still have to respond that they have been convicted of a crime.

    If pardoning is an act I propose that the year of Jubilee would also become a tradition again.


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