By Robbie Ward
JACKSON, Mississippi (Reuters) - A Mississippi judge on Monday allowed three murderers and an armed robber pardoned by former Governor Haley Barbour to remain out of prison, but delayed until at least next week the release of five other inmates who are still locked up.
State Attorney General Jim Hood is seeking to void most of the 203 pardons granted by Barbour during his final days in office earlier this month because not enough public notice was given in the communities where the crimes were committed.
A notice must be published in the community where the crimes were committed 30 days before a pardon is granted. Hood said 170 of the pardons did not meet the publication requirements, nine were under review and 24 had met the requirements.
Judge Tomie Green ordered the four freed men -- who had been serving life sentences and spent part of their prison time working at the governor's mansion while Barbour was in office -- to report daily to authorities.
Family members of some of their victims were in court, but left without commenting to reporters.
The whereabouts of a fifth freed prisoner, who had been serving a life sentence for murder, are unknown.
The judge extended an injunction to February 3 barring the release of five other inmates who had been pardoned.
After the hearing, Hood, the only Democrat serving in statewide office in Mississippi, said his challenge to the validity of most of Barbour's pardons was a "cut-and-dried constitutional case."
A spokeswoman for Hood said the attorney general would seek to cancel the pardons that did not meet the publication requirements at a separate court hearing later.
Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman, sparked controversy by granting 222 pardons, commutations and suspensions, generating debate about how much power a governor should have to pardon criminals convicted of serious crimes.
They were granted to 221 people. One convict's sentence was initially suspended in 2008 and he then received a full pardon.
Barbour has defended his clemency decisions and said he was confident they were all valid. He blamed political opponents for much of the controversy, saying on Sunday, "It is becoming public now that the attorney general's office was very involved in this.
The racial makeup of the pardons has also been scrutinized. About two-thirds of the pardons went to current or former prisoners who are white, while two-thirds of Mississippi's prison population is black. Barbour has said through a spokesperson that race played no factor in the decisions.
(Writing by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Peter Cooney)