Early release of prisoner sparks Mississippi outrage

BILOXI, Miss Fri Mar 25, 2011 5:04pm EDT

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BILOXI, Miss (Reuters) - The early prison release on Friday of a man who fatally shot a high school valedictorian has prompted a public outcry and plans for protests against Mississippi's sentencing laws.

Joseph Burton Goff served just eight years of a 20-year sentence for manslaughter, shaving off some of his prison time by working on clean-up crews after Hurricanes Rita and Katrina.

"It is beyond me how a cold-blooded murderer can reduce his time spent in jail by doing things like cleaning up storm debris after a hurricane," Mississippi state Senator Michael Watson, a Republican, told Reuters.

Goff, now 28, was released from a prison in Columbia, Mississippi early on Friday and will remain on supervised release until January 2014.

In December 2001, he fired into the home of 18-year-old Kyle Todd, who was home from college on Christmas break. Hit in the heart, Todd ran to his mother's bedroom and died in her arms.

The shooting was reportedly motivated by jealousy over a girl.

Some leaders on Friday questioned the wisdom of an executive order signed by Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour that allowed Goff to join clean-up crews after hurricanes hit the state. That work cut four months off Goff's prison term.

But the governor's office said sentencing guidelines established by the state legislature were responsible for reducing Goff's sentence by nearly 12 years.

"The governor did not pardon or release him from prison," said Barbour spokeswoman Laura Hipp.

Sentencing guidelines allowed Goff to cut seven years off his prison time by tutoring inmates and working as a library and canteen assistant. He also earned more than a year of merit time for getting a high school equivalency degree and completing special tasks.

"There are some glaring deficiencies in the law we need to correct, like who is eligible for earned time," said Watson, the state senator. "I know our community is outraged, and rightfully so."

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune)

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