Editor's Note: The following commentary was written by author and political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson:
JACKSON, MS - Mississippi’s Republican Gov. Haley Barbour was adamant. He told reporters, civil rights leaders and protesters not to hold their breath waiting for him to pardon Jamie and Gladys Scott, who served 16 years in prison for a 1993 armed robbery that they insist they did not commit.
The two sisters—sentenced to life in prison for a crime that netted $11—were freed on medical grounds in December after a national campaign for their release. As a condition of his suspension, Barbour said Gladys must donate a kidney to her sister, who is seriously ill, but the transplant has been put on hold because doctors say the women's weight makes surgery risky.
Civil rights leaders say the women were the victims of a racially tinged, unfair prosecution. The Scotts have refused to admit their guilt—Barbour's demand in return for a full pardon.
Barbour’s refusal to issue a pardon was not just the case of a pandering to white Mississippians by a controversial, ultraconservative Southern governor with a dubious track record on civil rights—a politician who has made inflammatory quips soft-peddling the state’s racist history. Barbour has his eye squarely on a presidential bid.
The bitter truth is that Barbour is no different from most governors and even presidents, Democrats or Republicans. Issuing pardons, commuting sentences, and granting clemency to prisoners or ex-prisoners, are powers they are loath to use. This is not new.
Much of this reluctance dates to the 1988 presidential campaign. At the start of the contest, Massachusetts governor and Democratic presidential contender Michael Dukakis had a commanding lead in the polls over his GOP rival, Vice President George H.W. Bush. The odds were strong that Dukakis would sail into the White House.
But then Bush strategists found the perfect weapon to torpedo Dukakis: the furlough that he approved for convicted murderer Willie Horton in 1986. While on weekend furlough, Horton committed assault, armed robbery and rape. Bush strategists pounced on the crimes and ran endless campaign commercials showing convicts (nearly all black) strolling out of the Massachusetts prisons, all on Dukakis’s watch.
The message was that black convicts were being let loose to terrorize vulnerable white, middle-class communities, all because of a soft-on-crime Democratic governor. If Dukakis were elected, the nation was told, the country would be beseiged by inmates let out of prison to rape, murder and pillage communities.
The message struck home, and Dukakis’s big lead over Bush evaporated. Bush won the presidential election in a rout. Loud accusations of racism and dirty politics meant nothing. Every governor and would-be politician, especially Democrats, took note of Dukakis’s fate. They were determined never again to be accused by GOP conservatives of being soft on crime.
California was a near-textbook example of where this could lead. During his five years in office, Democratic Governor Gray Davis went to extremes to block inmates convicted of violent crimes from gaining parole, attempting to sell himself in the process as the toughest anti-crime governor in America.
Davis was recalled by California voters anyway, who replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Meanwhile, other governors pretty much followed the script, routinely saying no to appeals for clemency, pardons and commutations for convicted felons. In the few instances when governors forgot the script, a tragic case would often emerge in the headlines to haunt them.
This was the case when former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a Republican, granted clemency to a felon, Maurice Clemmons, who went on to gun down four Seattle-area police officers having breakfast in a diner on a Sunday morning.
Huckabee was roundly ripped for this lapse of conservative judgment. More than a few analysts have noted that the Clemmons case would almost certainly pose problems for Huckabee, should he decide to toss his hat into the presidential ring again.
The issue of whether or not to pardon felons and ex-felons has not been lost on the White House. President Obama has granted very few. He has resisted every call from GOP senators, led by his 2008 presidential opponent Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and dozens of other congressional representatives to grant a posthumous pardon to famed boxer Jack Johnson, convicted a century ago for illicit sexual acts under the Mann Act.
Obama’s approval of an early release for the Scott sisters is as far as he will go, and even that took a national protest campaign. Barbour is determined that he will experience no repeat of what happened to Huckabee (or Dukakis), if he bids for the GOP presidential nomination.