Mississippi Judge Throws Out Civil Rights-Era Conviction

A judge on Wednesday threw out the burglary conviction of a black Korean War veteran who was wrongfully convicted in segregationist Mississippi after he tried to enroll at an all-white university.

Clyde Kennard was convicted of purchasing $25 worth of chicken feed he knew to be stolen in 1960 and sentenced to seven years in prison, but the only witness against him has recanted his testimony. Kennard died in 1963, after being released early because he had intestinal cancer.

Judge Bob Helfrich threw out the conviction in response to a petition by Gov. Haley Barbour, several former judges, a university president and others.

"Because this matter did begin here, it should end here," Helfrich said during a brief hearing. "To me, this is not a black and white issue; it's a right and wrong issue. To correct that wrong, I am compelled to do the right thing."

Beginning in 1956, after Kennard served four years in the Army, he repeatedly attempted to enroll at what is now the University of Southern Mississippi. The attempts angered segregationist leaders who were determined to fight integration at the Hattiesburg campus.

Kennard was arrested on charges of reckless driving and possession of whiskey. Those charges were later thrown out by the Mississippi Supreme Court, but Kennard was then convicted on the chicken-feed charge.

Steven Drizin, who represents the Kennard family and heads Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions in Chicago, praised the ruling.

"Martin Luther King Jr. once said that the 'moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,"' Drizin said. "It took 46 years, but the moral arc in Mississippi has finally bent toward justice in the case of Clyde Kennard."

In 1993, the university named a building after Kennard, but Mississippi had never taken steps to clear his name. Barbour and the state Parole Board turned down a request to pardon him.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Barbour said he had been working to find a resolution to the case and called the judge's decision the "appropriate, constitutional way for this innocent man to be exonerated."