Supremacist's suit rejected by court

Clearing civil rights worker's name irked Mississippian

The Chicago Tribune/August 24, 2007

The Mississippi Supreme Court has rejected an appeal by a white supremacist group challenging the exoneration of a former University of Chicago student who was wrongly imprisoned during the civil rights era.

Clyde Kennard was convicted of stealing a bag of chicken feed in 1960 and sentenced to 7 years' hard labor, but he died in 1963 after developing cancer that went untreated while he was in prison.

Critics always contended that he was railroaded for trying to integrate what is now the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, and in 2005 a Northwestern University professor and a group of history students at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire began working to clear his name.

In May 2006, after a grass-roots campaign that included many of Mississippi's most prominent jurists and politicians, a judge declared that Kennard was innocent and had been prosecuted because of his integration efforts. The decision, which had the support of the county district attorney, was considered unusual if not unprecedented.

Almost immediately, Richard Barrett, head of the segregationist Nationalist Movement in Learned, Miss., filed a motion to intervene to "redress an erroneous application of law ... to protect the public and himself, as a citizen of Mississippi."

Some of Kennard's advocates worried that they could be back to square one, but last week the state's top court said criminal cases are between the state and the defendant, and Barrett, as a private citizen, had no standing to challenge the decision.

"Since the State of Mississippi is the only proper party to bring an appeal, and since the State does not appeal but, indeed, applauds the [judge's] decision, we have no need to address any of the errors alleged" by Barrett and his clients, the court said.

Professor Steven Drizin, legal director for the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, called the ruling "amazing."

"This decision is the rare case where substance is allowed to triumph over procedure and where justice is elevated over finality," Drizin said.

"There was no mechanism under the law for Clyde Kennard to go into court and to get his conviction vacated. All of the statutory avenues were procedurally barred because of the passage of time," he said.

"Essentially what the court has said here is that all courts have the power to remedy wrongs, even when there appears to be no rules which would allow it," said Drizin, who added that the decision could set a precedent for the wrongly convicted.

Stevenson teacher Barry Bradford led the students' project through disappointment over a failure to obtain a pardon for Kennard to euphoria and then uncertainty over the exoneration.

He never lost faith in justice, he said.

"I always, always, always knew that we would have Clyde Kennard's name vindicated," Bradford said. "There was never a doubt in my mind that it would happen.

"The people who were bringing this suit were motivated not by a sense of justice but by hatred and racism. Their work is abhorred by the people of Mississippi."

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