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.