JACKSON, Miss. — Outgoing Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has pardoned at least four convicted killers who worked at the Governor's Mansion, including a man who was denied parole less than two weeks ago.
Relatives of three victims told The Associated Press on Monday that state corrections officials notified them over the weekend that the convicts were to be released this past Sunday. Barbour, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee who weighed a presidential run last year before deciding against it, leaves office on Tuesday.Video: Barbour’s refusal to run shocks supporters (on this page)
In the executive orders Barbour signed, he wrote each "proved to be a diligent and dedicated workman."
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The pardons outraged victims' relatives. Democratic lawmakers called for an end to the custom of governors' issuing such end-of-tenure pardons.
While Barbour's office hasn't responded to messages about the pardons, he told the AP in 2008 that releasing the trusties who live and work at the mansion is a tradition in Mississippi that goes back decades. Work by trusties would typically include kitchen duty, waiting tables, cleaning and washing vehicles, officials said.
The Barbour administration did not publicize the pardons, which became public when family members notified the media. The Mississippi Secretary of State's office released copies of the pardons Monday afternoon. They show Barbour has pardoned at least five men.
The former inmates are David Gatlin, convicted of killing his estranged wife in 1993; Joseph Ozment, convicted in 1994 of killing a man during a robbery; Anthony McCray, convicted in 2001 of killing his wife; Charles Hooker, sentenced to life in 1992 for murder; and Nathan Kern, sentenced to life in 1982 for burglary after at least two prior convictions.
Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said Monday afternoon that the inmates were released Sunday.
The 40-year-old Gatlin was sentenced to life in prison in the 1993 slaying of Tammy Ellis Gatlin and the shooting of Randy Walker, her long-time friend. Walker survived.
Walker's mother, Glenda Walker, said Monday that Gatlin shot his estranged wife while she was holding their young baby, then shot her son in the head.
"He left that little baby on his dead mother's body," Glenda Walker said. "It was a horrendous murder."
Crystal Walker, Randy Walker's wife, told the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., that her family was now living in fear.
"On parole he'd at least have to check in and have some supervision," the newspaper quoted her as saying. "Now he could live beside us, or we could run into him at Wal-Mart. You're always looking over your shoulder."
Tiffany Ellis Brewer of Pearl, sister of Tammy Ellis Gatlin, said David Gatlin's release revived the grief for her family.
"He shot her in the head while she was holding a baby," she said. "He's a cold-blooded murderer.
The Mississippi Parole Board turned down Gatlin on Dec. 27, according to a letter dated Jan. 4 and obtained by AP. The letter did not explain why the Parole Board rejected Gatlin's parole request. It said he was due for another parole hearing in October.
Gatlin had worked at the mansion since November 2009, Mississippi Department of Corrections records show.
"It's liked it's happened all over again to us," Brewer added. "We can't do anything about our situation now because he's out, he's gone. But I don't want anyone in this world to feel the fear, the pain and the hurt that our families are feeling right now. Something needs to be done."
Shannon Warnock, chair of the parole board, didn't immediately respond to a message Monday.
Other victims' relatives said they were also shocked by Barbour's pardons.
Joann Martin, a probation officer from Fort Worth, Texas, said Anthony McCray killed her sister.
McCray pleaded guilty in 2001 to killing Jennifer Bonds McCray, 38, at Ramsey's Cafe in McComb. The couple apparently had been arguing before the shooting. He left the cafe and returned with a gun. Jennifer McCray was shot once in the back.
"It's very painful for my family that he was released. When he killed her, she had a 3-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son, who have been raised by my other sister," Martin said. "It's a shame before God. It's almost like you kill somebody and nobody cares."
Democrats were quick to condemn the pardons, though past governors from both parties have granted some sort of early release to the inmates who lived and worked at the Governor's Mansion.
"Serving your sentence at the Governor's Mansion where you pour liquor, cook and clean should not earn a pardon for murder," Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, a Democrat, posted Monday on his Facebook page.
Members of the Mississippi House Democratic Caucus held a press conference at the Mississippi Capitol Rotunda and called for limits on governors' ability to pardon inmates. They said they would introduce legislation this year.
'A slap in the face'
Mark McAbee said Barbour pardoned the man who killed his uncle, Ricky Montgomery.
McAbee said Ozment was sentenced to life in 1994 for the slaying, which happened during a robbery with several other men.
"One of the other ones shot my uncle three times. He was crawling toward Joseph Ozment for help. He didn't know Joseph Ozment was involved. He was crawling to him for help. Joseph Ozment put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger twice," McAbee said.
He called the pardon "a slap in the face."
Barbour created a similar stir by releasing convicted killer Michael Graham in 2008. Barbour later defended "the custom" of governors reducing the sentences of the mansion's inmate workers if they behave.
Barbour's three predecessors, dating back to 1988, gave some type of early release or pardon to a total of 12 Governor's Mansion trusties. All but two of them had been convicted of murder. One was serving time for forgery and another for armed robbery and aggravated assault.
Epps, the corrections commissioner, told the AP in 2008 that the inmates who end up working at the Governor's Mansion are often convicted murderers because they are the ones who serve long enough sentences to build the trust needed for such a task.
Epps said Monday he wasn't taking a position on the practice of governors granting pardons, but pointed out that governors in Mississippi for decades have used their powers to let prisoners out early, including Governor's Mansion trusties convicted of serious crimes such as murder. He said he can't remember a case in which one of them committed another serious crime.
"I have sympathy and empathy for the victims," Epps said. "I've been a crime victim, but the point of the matter is this is just something that happens."
The Associated Press, Reuters and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.