By Himanshu Ojha, Marcus Stern and Robbie Ward
(Reuters) - Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour's grants of commutations or pardons to more than 200 prisoners, all but eight in his final days in office, disproportionately benefited white offenders among a predominantly black prison population, a Reuters analysis found.
Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman, stirred an uproar in Mississippi last week by the surprise grants of clemency, which numbered far more than any of his recent predecessors' in a state where law and order are hallmarks of political rhetoric.
The list included full pardons for four convicted murderers and an armed robber who worked at the governor's mansion on prison work release. Most of the pardons were granted to convicts who had completed their prison sentences.
Mississippi's attorney general has filed a complaint alleging that 156 of the pardons were unconstitutional. A state judge has scheduled a hearing for Monday.
Overlooked in the controversy has been the racial composition of the list of inmates and ex-convicts Barbour pardoned. Barbour granted 222 acts of clemency in his tenure to 221 individuals: one convict's sentence was initially suspended in 2008 and he then received a full pardon last week.
Of those, roughly two of three were white, according to data from the Mississippi Department of Corrections and a search of public records. The racial makeup of Mississippi's prison population is the inverse: about two-thirds' black.
Whites make up about 59 percent of the state's population as a whole and blacks about 37 percent.
Barbour said through a spokesperson that race played no factor in the decisions.
"A majority of the clemency cases were reviewed by the Parole Board before being sent to Governor Barbour," Barbour spokesperson Laura Hipp told Reuters. "Race was not a factor in his decision. In fact, it wasn't even listed on the Parole Board's application."
Regardless of the underlying reason, such a disparity between the racial background of those pardoned and prison demographics is a significant statistical anomaly, according to University of Georgia statisticians Kim Love-Myers and Jaxk Reeves, who carried out an analysis of the data for Reuters.
"This type of observational information cannot prove causality, though it does indicate a significant relationship between race and the probability of being pardoned," Love-Myers wrote in an email.
"The odds of a random sample of the prison population coming out with the same or greater disparity in racial proportions as the pardons list is less than one in a trillion, if race were truly unrelated to pardons."
Jimmy Gurulé, Notre Dame Law School professor who served as assistant U.S. attorney general under former President George H. W. Bush and also worked in former President George W. Bush's administration, said the disparity could have implications beyond Mississippi.
"At the very least, those numbers raise some very disturbing questions that need to be addressed by the attorney general and even by the U.S. Department of Justice civil rights division," Gurulé said.
"It should be made absolutely clear that ethnicity is not a factor in determining who should be pardoned. It would be a violation of the equal protection clause. It would be a violation of the U.S. Constitution as well as the Mississippi constitution."
Shannon Warnock, chair of the Mississippi Parole Board, said no data on the race of people who applied for clemency was available because that was not required on the application form.
"I can't remember there being any disparity," she said. "This parole board has been reviewing inmates black and white and Hispanic. I'm in my eighth year, another board member's in her eighth year and we see a variety of offenders. That, candidly, is just not something that we - that I factor into my decision-making process."
DISPARITY COULD REFLECT 'MANY CAUSES'
The pardons process begins with an application to the governor's office, which can then direct the Parole Board to investigate any applicant. The minimum criteria for clemency applications, laid down in an internal memo from Barbour in 2004, require that applicants be seven years out of custody without committing a crime or can prove mitigating circumstances for their crimes.
Warnock said the board received more than 500 applications during Barbour's eight-year tenure. Of those, just over 250 met the required standards for consideration and were sent on to the governor's office. Among the applications forward by the Parole Board, Warnock calculated that Barbour granted clemency to 185 applicants and denied it to 69 others.
Jack Glaser, associate professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, said the racial disparity, while dramatic, may have more complex underpinnings than simple racial prejudice.
"There's also a very good chance that black prisoners are less likely to apply for pardons," Glaser said. "They're more likely to be disenfranchised and less likely to have financial means and so that could also be a source of the disparity. I guarantee that this disparity has many, many causes."
When asked about any possible racial disparity in the pardons process, veteran Jackson, Mississippi, criminal lawyer Merrida "Buddy" Coxwell said, "I don't think anyone will ever admit wealth and race play a role in the legal system but no one who works in the system can deny it with a straight face and then go home and have a peaceful night sleep."
Jackson attorney Rob McDuff experienced the clemency process that led to former Governor Ronnie Musgrove reducing in 2002 the eight-year sentence of one of his clients, Deanna Elizabeth Wade, convicted of manslaughter.
McDuff said no formal process existed to file for clemency petitions. But he said it helped to have an attorney file paperwork on the applicant's behalf.
"It's a process where having money to hire a lawyer and having connections are very helpful," McDuff said. "It helps to have facts about your case and your record that make a commutation appropriate, but that's not enough by itself."
The Parole Board's Warnock said, however, she had seen very few applicants use attorneys in the pardons process.
"There was no need for one," she said. "It's user-friendly. It's exhaustive but it's not the kind of work that requires an attorney. You don't have to go and file, you don't have to do some research, you just have to do some legwork."
Love-Myers and Reeves also found that based on Mississippi's prison demographics, white prisoners were about four times more likely to be pardoned than black prisoners. That echoes a recent examination of presidential pardons under President George W. Bush by public interest non-profit news organization ProPublica.
In an analysis released last month of 1,918 applications for pardons during Bush's administration, ProPublica found that white criminals seeking presidential pardons were nearly four times more likely to get them than minorities.
"It is, to say the least, astronomically unlikely that Barbour's selection was color-blind," said Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Conviction. "Now whether that's Barbour's fault or the review board's fault, is a different question. It was somebody's fault. It's not color-blind."
Last week, Mississippi Circuit Judge Tomie Green issued an injunction blocking the release of 21 inmates who had been given pardons or conditional medical release.
Attorney General Jim Hood, the only Mississippi Democrat to hold statewide office, told reporters last week most of the pardons may have violated a state constitutional requirement that notice be posted in the community where the convicts committed their crimes well in advance of their pardons and release. Attorney General's Office spokeswoman Jan Schaefer said they were not looking at race as a factor in the pardons.
The new governor, Republican Phil Bryant, who was Barbour's lieutenant governor, has taken steps to distance himself from his longtime ally. He publicly dispensed with the tradition of pardoning felons who have worked at the governor's mansion and said he supported the push to change the state's constitution to limit a governor's pardon rights.
(Additional reporting by Atossa Abrahamian in New York; Editing by Dan Burns and Peter Cooney)