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'Uncle Haley' pardoned many with ties to power

A significant share of criminals pardoned by Haley Barbour were freed after appeals from prominent families, Republican donors or others from Mississippi's upper social strata .
/ Source: The New York Times

On a Saturday night in October 1995, a blue Toyota came hurtling down the wrong side of a county road in North Mississippi and crashed head-on into a pickup truck. Scotty Plunk, the driver of the truck, was killed. The driver of the Toyota, 19-year-old Joel Vann, had been drinking so much that he did not remember the accident.

Mr. Vann pleaded guilty to “D.U.I.-death,” and in lieu of jail attended a residential treatment program. This month he was one of 198 people pardoned by Mississippi’s governor, Haley Barbour, as he left office.

It is unclear what persuaded the governor to pardon Mr. Vann; his clemency application contains glowing references and a case study. But the letter to the governor from Mr. Vann’s father, the brother-in-law of a former Republican state committee member and contributor to Mr. Barbour, had a familiar tone.

“All is well in Corinth, and as you may know, we have two new Republican aldermen,” the letter said. It traced Mr. Vann’s path from rehabilitation through college, marriage and fatherhood before asking for “your consideration to grant Joel a pardon at the most appropriate time.”

Amy Plunk, meanwhile, said that her family had never recovered from her brother’s death. Of the mercy shown Mr. Vann, she added: “The Vanns are real prominent in the Corinth community. That’s what I suspect.”

Brett Favre's brother
In the furor over Mr. Barbour’s pardons — he issued 10 times as many as his four predecessors combined — beneficiaries like Mr. Vann have been overshadowed by others with higher profiles. Among them were four murderers who worked at the Governor’s Mansion and Brett Favre’s brother, who killed a friend in a drunken-driving accident.

A close look at some of the clemency applications of the nearly 200 others who were pardoned reveals that a significant share contained appeals from members of prominent Mississippi families, major Republican donors or others from the higher social strata of Mississippi life.

The governor erased records or suspended the sentences of at least 10 felons who had been students at the University of Mississippi or Mississippi State when they were arrested, including at least three who killed people while driving drunk and several others charged with selling cocaine, ecstasy and other drugs. Another pardon went to the grandson of a couple who once lived near Mr. Barbour’s family in his hometown, Yazoo City.

One beneficiary, Burton Waldon, killed an 8-month-old boy in an alcohol-induced crash in 2001. Mr. Waldon, a high school senior at the time, pleaded guilty and received a suspended sentence.

He is a member of the prominent Hill Brothers Construction Company family, big-money political donors who give mostly to Republicans, including Mr. Barbour. An uncle of Mr. Waldon, Kenneth W. Hill Sr., sought and received a pardon from President George W. Bush in 2006, erasing a federal income tax conviction.

Mr. Barbour declined to comment on the pardons, but a spokeswoman said that every application had been treated alike. “If you were poor or rich, you were told to go through the parole board process,” said the spokeswoman, Laura Hipp.

White and well connected
Ms. Hipp said that in roughly 95 percent of the cases, the governor went along with the majority recommendation of the five-member parole board he had appointed to review the requests. In some cases, the governor granted pardons that the board unanimously opposed. Grants of clemency are solely at the governor’s discretion, and he is not obligated to give his reasoning.

Many of those pardoned appear to have no special connections. Others with political ties made persuasive cases that they had led chastened lives and earned a second chance. Applications contained letters from pastors, teachers and counselors attesting to genuine redemption.

Yet in a state with the highest poverty rate in the nation, where nearly 70 percent of convicts are black, official redemption appears to have been attained disproportionately by white people and the well connected.

In some of the appeals for clemency, personal connections to Mr. Barbour were unabashedly made. “Maggi and I wanted to begin by thanking you and Marsha for a lovely and special lunch at the Mansion last Tuesday,” began a letter to the governor by a family friend of Doug Hindman, one pardon applicant. “It was very interesting to see the historical quilt upstairs.”

Mr. Hindman, the son of a cardiologist from Jackson, was arrested in 2006 after exchanging hundreds of sexually explicit messages with an undercover officer posing as an under-age girl.

The historical inequities in Mississippi justice have been chronicled by journalists and fictionalized by novelists from Faulkner to Grisham. Even today, prison terms for the same crime can vary significantly from one part of the state to another.

Mississippi’s pardon system, like those in other states, rewards applicants who have both the financial means and the connections to seek reprieves aggressively. According to the parole board, the board reviewed slightly more than 500 pardon applications during Mr. Barbour’s two terms in office, and he granted some form of clemency more than 40 percent of the time.

Poor prisoner ignored
Many of the applications contain the type of recommendations that a poor person could be hard-pressed to collect: character references from state legislators or local elected officials.

In impoverished Tallahatchie County, Kenneth Byars provides a case in point. He is serving 33 years in prison for growing eight pounds of marijuana. Mr. Byars has been in custody for 14 years, and his earliest possible release date is 2018.

He filed for a pardon a decade ago, but said he never received a reply. The cost — nearly $1,000 and paid by his mother — kept him from reapplying this time. “My momma doesn’t get nothing but a little Social Security check,” Mr. Byars said. “I wasn’t going to put that on her again.”

Sheriff William Brewer of Tallahatchie County, who supports Mr. Byars’s release, said that Mr. Byars lacked an advocate.

The pardon application itself is simple, according to Hiram Eastland Jr., a lawyer in Greenwood, Miss., who said that everyone had access to the system. Even so, Mr. Eastland said that it was preferable to have a lawyer.

Mr. Eastland, a cousin of James O. Eastland, the powerful Democrat who served as a United States senator for 36 years until his retirement in 1978, handled three petitions, including that of Wayne Harris, a convenience store owner from Calhoun City who said he had difficulty coming up with the money to pay Mr. Eastland’s fee, which he said was $10,000.

Like Mr. Byars, Mr. Harris was sentenced on a marijuana charge. Mr. Harris received letters from both the sheriff-elect and the mayor, and his petition proved successful.

Lawyer: Barbour not playing favorites
Mr. Eastland’s two other clients — both serving time on murder charges — did not receive pardons, a fact that Mr. Eastland said proved that Mr. Barbour was not playing favorites.

“I know his heart,” Mr. Eastland said. “He’s really sincere when he says people deserve second chances. He granted one and denied two, as close as we are.”

In other cases, applicants relied on someone who had the connections they lacked. The file of one man, who had participated in the gang rape of a 17-year-old in 1976 , included a reference letter from his employer, a large donor to Mr. Barbour and other Republicans.

The applicant received a pardon, as did two young men who robbed a grocery store at gunpoint in 1997. While their post-prison lives appear to be commendable — one is studying for a degree in mechanical engineering at Ole Miss — their petition was reinforced by a letter from Bob Dunlap, a major donor to the Republican Party.

“Please tell Uncle Haley that one of my few talents is my ability to judge people,” read the letter on their behalf, sent to one of Mr. Barbour’s nephews at his lobbying firm in Jackson.

The victims of the crimes are unmoved by these interventions.

“As for my family,” wrote one woman in a hand-written letter to the parole board, “we as a family say no forgiveness.”

She was referring to Eldridge Bonds, known as Bubba, who in 2003 pleaded no contest to forcible sexual battery of her 14-year-old daughter in the field house of South Panola High School, where he was a popular assistant coach.

Mr. Bonds, who said in an interview that he regretted agreeing to the plea deal, included in his clemency application dozens of letters praising his character. Some were from family friends, others from former colleagues at South Panola and one, dated 2003, from the dean of the University of Mississippi’s School of Education, who said “anybody who knows Bubba does not believe that he would have ever done what the student said he did.”

Large cotton farmer's nephew
Mr. Bonds pointed out in his own letter that he was the nephew of “one of the largest cotton farmers in Mississippi,” Don Waller, who also wrote a letter on his behalf. Mr. Waller is the brother of William L. Waller, a former governor who died in November.

John Champion, the district attorney, said that knowing Mr. Bonds’s family, “I suspected all along that they were going to attempt to get him a pardon.” He added, “I know that he has political connections.”

The parole board voted unanimously against his pardon, but Mr. Bonds was granted one nonetheless. “She don’t want to talk about it,” said the father of the girl at the center of the case.

Of all the pardons issued by Mr. Barbour, the case involving Harry R. Bostick, first disclosed by a blogger in Oxford, Miss., Tom Freeland, may be the most confounding.

Mr. Bostick, a former criminal investigator for the I.R.S., was sentenced in May 2010 for his third drunken driving offense — a felony — and ordered into treatment.

Several former government lawyers and law enforcement officers who worked with him on federal tax prosecutions submitted letters on his behalf. In one, a former United States attorney, Jim Greenlee, argued that Mr. Bostick had reversed his destructive course of conduct. “He now fits the criteria and meets the human factors that make his pardon a wise decision,” Mr. Greenlee wrote.

In October, Mr. Bostick, 55, was arrested again for drunken driving, this time in an accident that left an 18-year-old waitress dead. The waitress, Charity Smith, was working at Cracker Barrel to save money for college. On a Friday night, her Buick collided with Mr. Bostick’s truck.

Mr. Bostick was charged with his fourth D.U.I. On Jan. 10, he was pardoned for his prior felony D.U.I. by Mr. Barbour.

“What Haley Barbour has done has just killed us,” said Mary Ruth Ellis, 83, a neighbor and surrogate grandmother to Ms. Smith, a painter and writer. “Why was that man on the road? This is the failure of our law enforcement, in my opinion.”

Alain Delaquérière and Lisa Schwartz contributed research.

This article, headlined "List of Pardons Included Many Tied to Power," first appeared in The New York Times.