Thursday, May 18, 2006

Clyde Kennard Finally Exonerated

Breaking news today--in the very same courtroom where Clyde Kennard was wrongly convicted of burglary in 1960, Judge Bob Helfrich of the Forrest (MS) Circuit Court declared Kennard innocent. The Jackson, MS Clarion-Ledger article on Kennard's exoneration is located here. This is a good--if belated--day for the state of Mississippi and the nation.

What strikes me about cases like Kennard's is how difficult they are to resolve, and how the value of their resolution gets reduced when they are not quickly resolved. (Quickly, that is, once they are finally brought up.) First, there's an egregious wrong committed years ago in the name of racism. Second, we belatedly acknowledge the wrong, but we only decide to correct the wrong when enough people play squeaky wheel. And third, even when popular support for corrective justice grows, there is not always a clear legal mechanism in place for achieving it. I addressed the procedural matters involved Kennard's case in a previous post here. It seemed that everyone agreed that Kennard was innocent, but people did not agree how to exonerate his name.

What also strikes me is that while I have only lived in Mississippi for 2 years, I already have seen more than one case of delayed justice play out in the state court system. One might say that this in itself is some sort of progress: justice delayed is better than justice denied. But the fact that such cases are still around highlights how important they are. They are a means to acknowledge and apologize for past wrongs that hold Mississippi and other US states back. And not resolving them--or finding them difficult to resolve--prevents racial reconciliation.

What do I mean? Let me put it this way. In my posts about the Kennard matter, I have not meant to suggest that people opposed to the pardon of Kennard (which was never granted) were racist. That would be a gross--and inaccurate--oversimplication. Some of the people who supported the exoneration of Kennard, including Governor Barbour, had opposed the granting of a pardon. (See the Clarion-Ledger article linked to above). Governor Barbour is of course white, as is the Chairman of the MS Parole Board, who also opposed the pardon but supported Kennard's exoneration.

Rather, what I do mean to suggest is that racial wrongs committed in the past are such important matters that they have to be handled very conscientiously and with enormous consideration. Saying, "I'm sorry, but so-and-so can't get a pardon because he is dead" may sound to one person like an objective statement of the law--but to another person this very statement may be a reaffirmation of racial bias, since fewer whites were wrongfully convicted on falsified charges. Stated differently, if we were concerned about righting such wrongs, wouldn't the legal system have better procedures in place to do so?

So perhaps it would be useful if the following steps were taken to provide a clear means of redress for wrongs such as the one done to Kennard. I have to qualify these observations by saying that I am not an expert in Mississippi law or in criminal law generally, but they seem like reasonable steps.
  • First, if it has not already been done, the MS Attorney General's office should provide an official opinion regarding the legality of pardons for dead people. In this case, an opinion concluding that a pardon was legal would have allowed Governor Barbour to act within the law to clear Kennard's name. An opinion that a pardon could not be granted would have spared Governor Barbour some criticism when he stated that he opposed a pardon, since denying a pardon would not have appeared as a discretionary act. (An example of such criticism--a CBS News story--can be found here.)
  • Second, if pardons were found to not be available for dead people, the Mississippi legislature should then take up the matter--either to change the rule for use of pardons or to provide other avenues for expedient exoneration as necessary.
I am glad the Kennard case has finally been resolved, but the delay in his exoneration has undercut its societal value. This could have been at least partially avoided if Mississippi had a better process in place for dealing with such cases.


Anonymous said...

Three cheers. Now work on the main issue: getting voting rights restored for people convicted of felonies who are no longer imprisoned.

Thomas F. Jenkins said...

I really appreciate your coverage of the Kennard case. It got a lot of publicity when the Governor finally got involved. However, you neglect to mention that three high school students from Illinois and their teacher worked for a solid year to make this happen. Jerry Mitchell, whom you appropriately cite as a driving force has often written about the efforts of the students and their teach, who got the Northwestern University School Of Law involved, presented the brief to the Governor, developed an amazing website that has drawn nearly 10,000 views, created a documentary about Kennard, got politicians, historians and the family and friends of Kennard organized in the effort.

Last year, the same teacher, Barry Bradford, and three other students were cited by the national media for their central role in getting Edgar Ray Killen indicted and convicted for the murder of Civil Rights Workers Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman.

I contacted Mr. Bradford through his website - he is very modest and his work is incredible. He told me that when they developed the proof that Kennard could be shown to be factually innocent, he contacted two dozen prominent web sites run by and for African American readers and not one ran the item.

I think that those of us who stand on the shoulders of giants like Clyde Kennard have the moral responsibility to still talk about these cases, until each is resolved. And I think you should certainly mention the website ( and the work of Mr. Bradford and his students. If more of us had their dedication, many problems in our society might be solved.

T. F. Jenkins

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Mr. Jenkins, thanks for your thoughtful comment and for referencing the work and website of Mr. Bradford and his students. Their work has been extraordinary and, as you note, should be an inspiration for us all. I encourage everyone to check out their site at