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Outgoing Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin Issues 428 Pardons, Many Which Are Controversial

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There is controversy in Kentucky after outgoing Governor Matt Bevin issued 428 pardons during his final days in office. Some of those let go had been convicted of violent crimes like rape, murder and child molestation. In one case, a convicted killer was released after a family member held a fundraiser for Bevin's failed reelection. Kentucky Public Radio's Ryland Barton has more.

RYLAND BARTON, BYLINE: In 2014, Patrick Baker, Christopher Wagner and Elijah Message pretended they were police officers and forced their way into the home of Knox County, Ky., resident Donald Mills. Baker ended up fatally shooting Mills and was convicted of homicide, robbery and impersonating a police officer. Governor Matt Bevin pardoned Baker on his last day in office. The other two, who are serving time for manslaughter and robbery, did not get pardons.

JACKIE STEELE: The only difference I could see is that one family had a fundraiser and the other two didn't.

BARTON: That's Laurel County commonwealth's attorney Jackie Steele, who prosecuted the case. Last year Baker's brother and sister-in-law held a campaign fundraiser for Bevin in their home. They raised $21,500 and personally donated $4,000 to Bevin.

STEELE: That's why the pardon was given, absolutely I have a problem with that.

BARTON: In his pardon message, the Republican Bevin called the case, quote, "sketchy at best" and said he wasn't convinced justice had been served but didn't say why he left the other two in prison. Most of the other pardons that Bevin granted were the sort of clemency normally given by outgoing Kentucky governors - low-level drug offenders who had turned their lives around or cases widely thought to be miscarriages of justice. But many of Bevin's moves have drawn quick outcry, like the pardon of a northern Kentucky man who was convicted last year of raping a 9-year-old. Rob Sanders is the Kenton County commonwealth's attorney and prosecuted the case.

ROB SANDERS: I thought I knew Matt Bevin. I thought Matt Bevin was a law and order guy. I thought Matt Bevin was a public safety guy. I thought Matt Bevin cared about children - and obviously not.

BARTON: Bevin also pardoned another man convicted of brutally murdering and dismembering a woman in 1994. Bevin wrote that he pardoned him because the prosecutor didn't use DNA evidence in the case. University of Louisville political science professor Dewey Clayton called Bevin's pardons highly unusual because of the severity of the cases.

DEWEY CLAYTON: We are finding out that just because we want something to be judicious - isn't always what we get.

BARTON: Both Republicans and Democrats in Kentucky have criticized Bevin's actions. A prominent Republican lawmaker has called for limiting a governor's pardon power in the weeks before they leave office, and Kentucky's new Democratic governor Andy Beshear told NPR's Here & Now today that he takes issue with at least one of Bevin's pardons, a case prosecuted by his office when he was the state's attorney general.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ANDY BESHEAR: It was an awful case where a young man in high school was attacked, was violated. It was filmed. It was sent out to different people at his school. It's one of the worst crimes that we have seen.

BARTON: Beshear said he's trying to avoid criticizing his predecessor because he believes Kentucky is ready to move on and move forward.

For NPR News, I'm Ryland Barton in Frankfort. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.