The red, white and blue bunting is still up, whipping in the winter winds on the temporary platform in front of Mississippi’s state capitol. Two days ago, a new governor was sworn in here. But the satellite trucks that still ring the capitol aren’t interested in the new executive; they’re still focused on the old one. The name on the lips of local and national correspondents alike on Thursday night was Haley Barbour.
Barbour became a private citizen two days ago when he officially left Mississippi’s gubernatorial mansion, where he’d lived for the last eight years, but it was his actions in his final days as governor that have the state in an uproar. After issuing just eight pardons in his first seven years, Barbour pardoned 208 convicts, 41 of them murderers, sex offenders or child molesters, during his last 48 hours in office. Barbour notes that 90% of the people he pardoned weren’t in prison, but four murderers have been released. And by expunging their records, they can now legally buy guns, just as the sex offenders he pardoned no longer need to give their names to the sex offender registry.
The ensuing tumult has not only cast a shadow over Barbour’s otherwise triumphant exit from office, but Governor Phil Bryant’s new job as well. When TIME called the governor’s office requesting contact information for Barbour, Bryant’s staff said they didn’t know how to reach the man who was Bryant’s mentor. “I’m sorry, we have no contact with governor Barbour and no information for you,” said a receptionist. Since taking office, practically the only question reporters have asked Bryant is if he’ll challenge his predecessor’s pardons. So far he’s declined to do so, saying only that his own pardons would be issued with good cause. Meanwhile, Democrats are working on legislation to curb the governor’s pardoning power, and a Mississippi judge has halted the release of any other prisoners and ordered that those who have been released report in daily until a review of all 208 pardons is complete.