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Haley Barbour is an astute politician with aspirations beyond the governor’s mansion in Mississippi. He has been very active in the internal workings of the Republican Party for decades and is often named as a possible presidential candidate in 2012.

As a career politician, Barbour is careful to avoid anything which might damage his political future. You will not find his name on the membership roles of “extremist” or “radical” organizations. You will not catch him golfing at any all-white country clubs. And you will not find bribe money in his kitchen freezer. Neither will you find any criminals, released from prison by Governor Barbour, out terrorizing the countryside.

Embarrassing criminal recidivism will never haunt Governor Barbour’s political career, because Governor Barbour has a firm policy of refusing to “interfere” with the justice system.

Barbour’s non-interference policy is probably politically smart. After all, few voters have much concern for kindness to convicted criminals, and criminals have a way of falling back on old habits and embarrassing their political benefactors. The presidential aspirations of Governor Michael Dukakis were seriously compromised by revelations that he had supported a furlough program that allowed a convicted murderer named Willie Horton out of prison long enough to commit armed robbery, assault and rape. Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkansas and contender for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, might have had his future presidential aspirations cut off at the knees by a man whose life sentence he commuted. The man had been sentenced to life in prison as a juvenile, and Huckabee felt he deserved a second chance, but several years later the guy proved to be a demented cop hater. He gunned down 4 Seattle-area police officers while they sat in a coffee shop.

Politically savvy or not, Barbour’s policy is cowardly and a dereliction of his duties as governor.

The criminal justice system in the United States is one of the best and most fair in the world, but it is far from perfect, and one of the safety valves in the system is the power of governors and the president to intervene when the system fails.

There are countless stories of persons wrongfully convicted, but remaining in prison for years – or decades – because the system offers no avenue for them to get new evidence, which clearly exonerates them, in front of a judge.

Certainly there are many thousands more cases where guilty criminals are grasping at straws in hopes of getting out of jail, and governors and the president must exercise their powers judiciously and sparingly, but to completely abdicate this responsibility is simply unconscionable. To indifferently allow a person wrongfully convicted of a crime to languish in prison based on a politically motivated policy should reflect every bit as poorly on a politician as releasing an offender who subsequently offends again.

Several years ago I reported on the story of a young man in Mississippi named Cory Maye, who, on the night after Christmas 2001, blindly fired at intruders as they kicked down the door to his sleeping child’s bedroom. A moment after Maye fired the shots, police officers at the door, who had not previously announced themselves, identified themselves and Maye immediately dropped the gun and surrendered.

Tragically, the first officer through the door was mortally wounded by one of Maye’s wild shots. The officer killed was the popular, white son of the local police chief. Cory Maye was an unemployed, black youth with no criminal record and no money for an attorney. The trial was moved from the rural, poor, predominantly black area where the tragedy occurred to a suburban, affluent, predominantly white venue. Only two blacks served on the jury. Cory Maye was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

Since that conviction Maye has appealed and gotten his sentence changed to life in prison, and last year he was finally granted a new trial, but with limitations that are now to be debated in the state Supreme Court. Regardless of the decision of that court, there is still much doubt as to whether a young, black man can find justice in the killing of a white police officer in Jefferson Davis County, Miss.

The injustice of the Maye case is so clear and obvious, it is outrageous that Governor Barbour has refused to intervene. The 18-month-old daughter Cory Maye was protecting when he fired those shots is now 10 years old, and all of that time her father has been behind bars. As proof of Barbour’s commitment to his non-interference policy, Barbour’s office points to the fact that he refused to overturn the conviction of a man who was unquestionably proven innocent – even after the man was dead.

I call that evidence of Governor Barbour’s cowardice and dereliction of duty. The people of Mississippi have entrusted him with the power to right such wrongs, and his refusal to do so in a case as blatant as that of Cory Maye is simply shameful.

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