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In the late 1950s, Clyde Kennard attempted to transfer from the University of Chicago, where he was as student in good standing, to the University of Southern Mississippi. The segregationist leaders of the time framed him for the crime of receiving stolen chicken feed.
They sentenced him to prison in order to set an example that they hoped would ensure that no African-American would ever again attempt to enroll in the University Of Southern Mississippi. To compound the tragedy, he became gravely ill in prison, was badly mistreated and died shortly after receiving clemency, based upon his medical condition.
Some fifty years later, in an unusual legal move, a Mississippi judge on Wednesday (May 17, 2006) tossed out the civil rights-era conviction of the unjustly imprisoned African-American former University of Chicago student.
The decision to exonerate Clyde Kennard elated a group of students at Stevenson High School
in Lincolnshire, Illinois, who have worked to clear his name. "All traces of the conviction are erased, the record is expunged, and Clyde Kennard is officially innocent," said Barry Bradford, a teacher at the Lincolnshire school. "Today we've seen justice established."
Kennard, who died of cancer in 1963 while on an "indefinite suspended sentence," was declared innocent in the same Hattiesburg courtroom where he was convicted in 1960 and sentenced to 7 years' hard labor for stealing $25 worth of chicken feed, a charge disproved this year when the lone witness against him recanted. Historical documents show how segregationists discussed framing Kennard for trying to integrate Mississippi Southern College, now the University of Southern Mississippi.
As recently as last week, the students at Stevenson High School and their legal expert, Steven Drizin of Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions, were deeply disappointed when Mississippi's Parole Board refused to recommend that Kennard be pardoned by Gov. Haley Barbour, who already had said he would not grant one. Barbour instead issued a proclamation declaring March 30 as Clyde Kennard Day.
Searching for a solution, Bradford, the Stevenson High School teacher, called former federal Judge Charles Pickering, the famous father of an acquaintance. On Friday, they agreed to take the fight back to the Forrest County Circuit Court where it all started decades ago. Pickering, whose activist civil rights record helped trigger a partisan fight years ago over his nomination by President Bush to a federal appeals court, quickly secured the signatures of 15 other prominent Mississippians on a petition asking that Kennard's conviction be overturned.
"A basic premise of all of our law is you don't convict innocent people," said Pickering, who had followed the case. The petition, which Pickering read to the court, included the signatures of Ellie Dahmer and Vernon Dahmer Jr., the widow and son of slain civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer Sr., and former Mississippi Gov. William Winter.
Also in the crowded courtroom Wednesday were Kennard's friends and family, who exchanged hugs and cried after the verdict, said Rev. Willie Grant, Kennard's brother-in-law and a Hattiesburg preacher. "I'm happy with it," Grant said. "[The judge] just told the truth: He's innocent. It's been a long, long time."
Pickering, Judge Bob Helfrich and District Atty. Jon Mark Weathers said that although the case was perhaps unprecedented because Kennard is long dead, they were on solid ground. "Legally, there probably is not a vehicle for relief," Helfrich said in an interview. "[But] I don't believe I'm prohibited from declaring it null and void."
Weathers entered an order that ensures the case cannot be prosecuted again without taking new evidence to a grand jury. "And that's not going to happen," said Weathers, who supported the claim of Kennard's innocence.