For Some, Pardons About Redemption, Not Freedom

Published January 21, 2012 3:45PM (EST)

WESSON, Miss. (AP) — When Thomas Ailes heard from a friend that he'd been pardoned for a marijuana conviction from the 1970s, he didn't wait for the Mississippi Parole Board to mail him the paperwork. He jumped in his blue Dodge truck and drove an hour to the capital to pick it up himself.

On an unseasonably warm morning this past week, the Vietnam veteran kicked back on his front porch in the tiny town of Wesson and proudly displayed Executive Order No. 1083, one of nearly 200 pardons former Gov. Haley Barbour signed in his final days in office.

"I'm going to have about 10 copies of this bad boy made. And this one here is getting framed," Ailes said.

The pardon isn't life-changing for Ailes, 61. He's been out of prison since 1977. He's disabled, so it won't help him land a job. He never lost his right to vote.

"I just wanted the same clean record I had when I joined the Marines," he said. "I wanted it so I can clear my conscience."

Ailes' hopes may be dashed. The Mississippi attorney general's office is trying to have dozens of pardons thrown out, including his.

In the shadows of the national headlines and angry reaction from victims of heinous crimes, there are many like Ailes, searching for redemption, not freedom.

Barbour, a two-term Republican governor, has been criticized for granting so many pardons and for giving them to people convicted of serious crimes like murder and rape. Among those pardoned were trusties — prisoners so trusted that they are allowed to work at the Governor's Mansion. Some lawmakers have vowed to craft legislation that would limit the governor's pardoning powers.

Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps has said that since he began working in the prison system in the 1970s, he did not know of any trusties who went back to prison for new crimes after being granted full pardons.

Most of the pardons were for lesser crimes, some dating back decades. Four men who benefited from Barbour's pardons were convicted of crimes in the 1960s — one for arson, two for burglary and one for robbery. More than four times that many were convicted of crimes in the 1970s, and even more in the '80s and '90s. Barbour has said 189 of the people who got reprieves were already out of prison, like Herbert Lowery of Vicksburg.

Lowery was 30 when he was busted for delivering marijuana and admitted he was looking for fast money to build a house and start a family. A shameful mistake, he called it, saying he's never even smoked pot.

Now 64, Lowery served less than a year in 1979 and hasn't been in trouble since. But the felony conviction was a haunting embarrassment.

Like Ailes, the pardon isn't likely to have much effect on Lowery's life. He too is disabled, from heart surgery and lung cancer. He's an avid hunter, but a judge restored his right to own a gun years ago. He's been voting ever since he got of prison.

"I just wanted to clear my name before I died," Lowery said. "I'm so ashamed of what I did."

For others, the pardons offer a chance at a better job and a better life.

Larry Harper, a convicted killer who worked as a prison trusty in the Governor's Mansion for Barbour's predecessor, Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, said he has been cleaning a chicken processing plant in Forest for eight years since he got out of prison on a suspended sentence. The murder, aggravated assault and weapon violations, he says, are like heavy chains that keep him from moving up in the world.

"That's all I want is to do a better job. As far owning a gun and all that other stuff, I don't care. I just want a better job," Harper told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Harper readily acknowledges he killed a man in the early 1980s, but said he meant only to shoot the man in the shoulder while protecting himself during a bar fight.

Harper was sentenced to life in 1983. He was a good prisoner and earned the coveted trusty job in 1997. It's a position in Mississippi that came with the chance at freedom. Governors historically released the trusties at the end of their terms, though new Republican Gov. Phil Bryant ended the program Thursday.

Harper was paroled Aug. 17, 1998. But less than a year later, he was arrested again, this time on aggravated assault and weapons charges. He said he didn't have a weapon and didn't assault anyone, but was mixed up with the wrong crowd.

He was sent back to prison in June 1999 and again became a Governor's Mansion trusty in March 2001. When Musgrove left office in 2004, he had Harper released on a suspended sentence — meaning he was still on parole and didn't have the conviction wiped from his record.

Barbour's pardon could cut Harper loose from parole. If it stands.

Attorney General Jim Hood, the lone Democrat in statewide office, has pledged to fight dozens of the pardons, saying many people they benefited didn't publish the notifications in local newspapers every day for a month as required for pardons.

It was the pardon of five Governor's Mansion trusties sentenced to life — four for killings and the other for robbery — who got the most attention. One had shot his estranged wife in the head while she held their young baby, and then shot and wounded her friend. Another trusty shot his wife in the back. Hood first moved to block their pardons, then filed papers to block dozens more.

Hood said only 25 of the 198 people granted full pardons published the proper notifications, including Lowery, though about 10 others are still being reviewed. Ailes and Harper did not.

But Parole Board Chairwoman Shannon Warnock told the AP Ailes and others got vague instructions. Some were led to believe they could publish once a week for a month — not every day as constitutionally required.

On Monday, a judge will decide whether the pardons can stand, though the ruling can be appealed.

Thinking back to that day on the porch, smiling in the warm sun and celebrating his good fortune, Ailes felt betrayed when he learned his pardon could be erased.

"That's a crock," Ailes said. "I guess that's the way they do a veteran. I did everything they told me to do."

By Salon Staff

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