11th hour for Governor pardon bills in state legislature

By Sylvia Hall - bio | email

PASCAGOULA, MS (WLOX) - It's the eleventh hour for six bills by local law makers aimed at limiting the governor's pardoning powers. The push comes on the heels of convicted murderer Michael Graham's release from prison last year.

"I don't think that I would be doing my job if I didn't pursue this until the end," said Rep. Brandon Jones (D-111), about his dedication to reforming the governor's power of pardon.

Jones remembers the day Adrienne Klasky was murdered in downtown Pascagoula, and he shared the outrage many had when Governor Barbour released her murderer, ex-husband Michael Graham, from prison last year.

"Whenever we began to hear news that Michael Graham may get out before his release date, It was just an enormous shock to us and to family members who wondered why this was happening," Jones said.  "And why he was being released after they had worked so hard to get him behind bars in the first place."

Now Jones is pushing three of his own bills in the state legislature to limit the Governor's right to pardon.

"I believe that it really slights the justice system for prosecutors to work hard to put together a case for victims and family members to come forward, to help get to a prosecution," Jones said. "And then for one politician to be able to step in and say, 'I'm undoing that entire process and setting that person free.'"

He has three different bills in committees that he says would help prevent such a release from happening again. He penned three different bills, that would check the governor's pardoning power to varying degrees. They are:

  • Requiring the Governor to hold a hearing with the Sheriff and District Attorney in the county where a crime was committed, before the final pardoning decision
  • Requiring a parole board to issue approval or disapproval of pardon, after it has been petitioned to the Governor, but before the Governor makes a decision
  • Amending the state constitution, barring the Governor from pardoning people convicted of violent crimes like Graham

State Senator Michael Watson (R-Pascagoula) also has three bills in committees with the same goal in mind.

"Anytime you can address an issue that brings up such bad memories and touches such a nerve that enrages the entire community, then we've got to do something," Watson said about the pardoning issue.

His three bills would do the following:

  • Disallow convicted murderers from serving as trusties in the governor's mansion

"I think the basis of that is once the governor is around these folks, you start to build a relationship around these folks," Watson said about his bill. "So if you keep them from serving there in the first place, then the relationship is not built, and he has no reason to pardon them."

  • Amend the constitution to limit which types of criminals the governor can pardon
  • Force a hearing in the town in which the crime was committed before pardoning decisions are made

Both legislators have bills that mention local hearings. Assistant District Attorney Brice Wiggins says his office would welcome the reform.

"Anything that would give local citizens and particularly the victims a say so is particularly great, and we would be in full support of that," Wiggins said.  "If it was our office or even any of the other DA offices, they're the prosecutors who actually tried the case and who are familiar with the facts from the start."

So far, none of the bills are up for discussion and the deadline for them to pass committee is Tuesday.

Both legislators are hoping any one of the bills passes through the committee phase in the eleventh hour.

"That's the good thing about having a House and a Senate," Watson said.  "You can have legislation start on either side."

But even if the bills die this week, the push for reform will continue.

"I am convinced that the law needs to change when it comes to the releasing of criminals," said Jones.  "And until the law changes, I'll continue to be a voice and continue to work on this issue."