Hours before Matt Bevin left office as Kentucky’s governor this month, he reached out to David Barron, a public defender in Frankfort, with surprising news. 

Bevin was letting one of Barron’s clients, a confessed killer who participated in a triple murder in 1983, off death row. The inmate’s two death sentences would be commuted to life in prison, and he could be paroled as soon as next year.

“He believed that Leif Halvorsen saved people’s lives and will continue to save lives,” Barron said, noting that, while behind bars, Halvorsen had raised money for poor children and participated in a program for troubled youth.

But easing the sentence of a murderer who counted a 19-year-old woman among his victims was one of several pardons and sentence commutations that prompted fierce national backlash against Bevin, who also gave reprieves to a man convicted of raping a 9-year-old; a technician convicted of stuffing his co-worker’s decapitated body into a barrel; and a man convicted of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy.

Some who consulted with the former governor say his decisions were the result of a deep interest in the problems of the criminal justice system. Bevin said he was guided by his Christian value of forgiveness and said his decision process was thorough.

But the controversial pardons and commutations also were the result of Kentucky’s unilateral clemency process, which provides the governor an unusually large degree of unchecked autonomy in selecting which inmates get leniency.

The state allows people to apply directly to the governor’s office to have their sentences reduced or rights restored. Unlike in most states, Kentucky doesn’t require those requests to be reviewed by a board. In many of Bevin’s cases, families of the victims were not notified.

“It’s unusual, and it’s risky,” said Margaret Love, an attorney who specializes in clemency, of Kentucky’s process. “It’s risky for the governor. It’s risky for the people that are applying.”

Kentucky is one of 29 states where boards can recommend whether clemency should be granted, but the governor is not obligated to comply, said Love, executive director of the Washington nonprofit Collateral Consequences Resource Center. Three-quarters of those states require at least one other check on the governor’s decisions, such as a board investigation, public hearings or notification of prosecutors or victims, according to the Restoration of Rights Project, a part of Love’s resource center. Kentucky does not.

Halvorsen, 65, was among those who appealed directly to Bevin.

“I know Bevin has the power to pardon and commute, but something like this? No,” said Barbara Barber, the aunt of one of Halvor­sen’s victims, Joey Durrum. “My other nieces and nephews are living the murder all over again.” 

During his final days in office, Bevin granted clemency to more than 600 people. Most cases involved low-level drug offenses and some others had already served their sentences. The uproar has centered on a handful of particularly violent cases or ones that victimized children, in which Bevin’s action ended or significantly shortened the inmates’ time behind bars. In one case, Bevin has been pilloried for pardoning a man whose family held a fundraiser for him, with state lawmakers calling for an investigation.

Bevin has said that he chose cases in which there was convincing evidence of innocence or in which the convict had shown remorse and signs of rehabilitation behind bars.

In a voice message left for The Post earlier this month, Bevin said, “I’m a big believer in second chances. I think this is a nation that was founded on the concept of redemption and second chances and new pages in life.” 

But some of his explanations have only intensified the outrage.

In an interview with a Louisville talk-radio host, Bevin defended his pardon of a man convicted of raping a 9-year-old girl, saying he found “zero evidence” and that the girl’s hymen was intact.

“This is perhaps more specific than people would want,” Bevin said. “But trust me. If you have been repeatedly sexually violated as a small child by an adult, there are going to be repercussions of that physically and medically.”

Scientists have rejected using the hymen alone as evidence of sexual activity.

“Now he’s saying that my daughter’s a liar,” the victim’s mother said in an interview with Cincinnati news station WCPO-TV. The station did not release her name to protect the victim.

“We just got to the point where we felt safe even in the house. Not having to look over our shoulders,” she said. “Shame on him. Shame on him.”

Asked if he would reconsider any of his pardons, Bevin was unequivocal in the radio interview.

“Not one of them,” he said.

Bevin swept into office as a hero of the conservative tea party movement in 2015. By the time he conceded his reelection to Democratic opponent Andy Beshear last month, he had racked up a long list of political nemeses, including public school teachers and his own lieutenant governor.

But John Tilley, Bevin’s head of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, saw another side of the unpopular governor.

During Bevin’s term, they connected on criminal justice issues, agreeing that there were “far too many low-level, nonviolent offenders in jail or prison serving time,” said Tilley, who was a Democratic state lawmaker before Bevin tapped him to oversee the corrections department and state police.

Bevin had long discussed mass commutation, Tilley said, so it was no surprise when the governor called him on Nov. 25, saying he wanted to move forward with the idea.

They held a call with other officials the next day, including state Public Advocate Damon L. Preston, who oversees public defenders and the Kentucky Innocence Project. 

The clemency applications that Bevin granted appeared to come through three routes. The Justice and Public Safety Cabinet developed a list of almost 400 cases to recommend, including 336 people sentenced for possessing a controlled substance and 58 others convicted of low-level, nonviolent crimes, Tilley said.

Preston’s office, the public advocate, sent Bevin 41 cases described as wrongful conviction or unduly harsh sentences.

“But we also didn’t know of several that he was reviewing,” Tilley said, “because those applications go directly to his office.” 

Bevin’s office received appeals from convicts and their advocates, including relatives and politicians. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) initiated a request to pardon Christopher II X, a Louisville community activist who was convicted on a drug charge and failure to return a rental car in the 1990s, according to his office. The activist checked his phone earlier this month and had a voice mail from Bevin telling him about his pardon. 

Tilley disagreed about some of the people on Preston’s list. In a Dec. 6 letter to Bevin, he wrote that his staff had “serious reservations and public safety concerns related to a number of candidates.” He noted that some were involved in prison riots and had “extensive” disciplinary records. 

Bevin denied clemency to some people on Tilley’s list but granted it for others. 

“He ultimately made that decision,” Tilley said. “That’s his power and that’s his prerogative under the [state] constitution.”

Criminal justice experts and former governors have defended clemency power since the Kentucky outcry began, saying it is a needed check.

“We need more governors to use their clemency power to correct injustices in the system,” said Rachel Barkow, a clemency expert and law professor at New York University. “In many places there are no other options … It’s a really important part of our system.”

Before leaving office as Mississippi’s governor in 2012, Haley Barbour was criticized for granting nearly 200 pardons. Barbour said he wishes he could have pardoned more people.

“I believe in second chances,” Barbour said in an interview this week. “I can assure you, I would do it again.”

In a conversation that began on his last night in office, Bevin told Barron, the public defender who represented Halvorsen, that he was touched by the clemency petitions that arrived in his office. Barron recalled the governor talking about the book “Ghost of the Innocent Man,” which chronicled the wrongful conviction and exoneration of Willie J. Grimes in the rape and killing of a 69-year-old woman in North Carolina. He said Bevin urged him to read it.

Barron said his political beliefs are nearly opposite of Bevin’s, but he’s never seen a governor dig into the clemency process the way Bevin did.

“He’s spending his last days making these phone calls to personally inform people rather than prior governors who have staff do so,” Barron said. “Usually you hear about it when you receive a commutation letter or hear about it on the news.”

Bevin did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

Tilley also said that Bevin “pored over” the applications that came to his office. He said Bevin sought the help of his legal team, who “spent a lot of overtime on this and weekend hours.”

Among the people whom Bevin granted clemency over Tilley’s objections was Delmar Partin, 63, who had been convicted of killing Betty Carnes by decapitating her and stuffing her body in a barrel. Prosecutors said Carnes had broken off an affair with him. 

Tom Handy, who prosecuted Partin,called Bevin’s decision “a travesty of justice.” Carnes’s daughters released a statement saying that Bevin wasn’t qualified to make the decision, noting that he is not “a forensic scientist, lawyer or judge.” 

Partin has maintained his innocence. Melanie Foote, an attorney for the Kentucky Innocence Project, said experts are skeptical that Partin could have killed Carnes in such a gruesome way without creating a substantial blood trail and in the 15 to 20 minutes between when witnesses testified that they saw him.

“He could not have murdered, decapitated and concealed the victim’s body and then walked past several people mere minutes later, with no signs of struggle, blood or injury on his person or clothing,” the Department of Public Advocacy wrote to Bevin on Nov. 17.

Bevin has also drawn criticism for pardoning Patrick Baker, convicted in 2017 of reckless homicide, robbery, impersonating a policeofficer and tampering with evidence. Baker’s parents filed a pardon application with Bevin’s office in July 2018, while he submitted a handwritten letter saying his family “is struggling without me.” 

Prosecutors argued that Baker and another co-defendant broke into Donald Mills’s home, holding his family hostage, and that Baker had shot and killed Mills. In his pardon, Bevin wrote that “the evidence supporting [Baker’s] conviction is sketchy at best.”

Elliot Slosar, Baker’s attorney, said DNA evidence collected from the bedroom where Mills died did not match Baker’s. Two other people convicted in the case were not given clemency and remain in jail. 

This pardon set off a firestorm when a photograph circulated among prosecutors and the Mills family showing the governor attending a July 2018 fundraiser hosted by Baker’s brother and sister in law, Eric and Kathryn Baker.

The Courier Journal reported that, in an interview last weekend, Bevin said he did not remember meeting Eric Baker, before eventually saying he had talked to him and adding: “I don’t know if I’ve spoken to him about this.” 

Jackie Steele, who prosecuted Baker, called Bevin’s move “an atrocity of justice.” Melinda Mills, Donald Mills’s sister, said she wanted Bevin investigated and added that she was incensed to learn about the pardon through a news story posted on Facebook. 

“We had no warning at all,” she said. 

Baker has argued he is innocent and said his “pardon was never paid for by my family.”

State officials said Baker’s case came up multiple times with Bevin.

“He said people in the community came to express concerns about that case,” said Tilley, noting that he most recently spoke to Bevin about the case in August. “There were some who were expressing concerns on both sides. Some were telling him there was a legitimate claim of innocence. And others would claim that wasn’t the case at all, that they had the right man.”

Tilley said the fundraiser never came up in discussions, saying he was unaware of that until it emerged in media reports and did not believe it played a role in Bevin’s thinking. 

“I do believe the governor sincerely believes in Patrick Baker’s innocence,” he said.

Alice Crites and Julie Tate contributed to this report.