CONCORD, N.H. – A New Hampshire farmer who became a folk hero to gun rights activists after he was imprisoned for brandishing a handgun at a trespasser on his property won early release Wednesday.
The New Hampshire Executive Council voted unanimously to free Ward Bird, just two months into his three-year sentence.
His wife, Ginny, said he would come home to "lots of tears, lots of hugs and a big celebration."
Bird, 49, of Moultonborough, had sought a full pardon to clear his name. The council voted in his favor, but Gov. John Lynch vetoed the pardon, saying the judicial system had given Bird's case a thorough review and he would not undermine that. The council then immediately voted to commute his sentence, and Lynch let that vote stand.
"I, like the (sentencing) judge, have concerns the punishment does not fit the crime," Lynch said.
Bird's felony conviction for criminal threatening with a firearm remains on his record. He can no longer possess guns. Attorney General Michael Delaney said a full pardon would have restored Bird's right to own and carry guns.
Ginny Bird said that during a late afternoon telephone conversation with her husband, he proclaimed that he's not a prisoner anymore.
She said that while he's disappointed he didn't get a full pardon, he told her that could be dealt with another day by applying to the court to have the conviction annulled.
Carroll County corrections officials said Bird will be released from their jail as soon as they have the official paperwork in hand, even if it's after the close of business hours. But Bird's paperwork first has to be processed by the state Department of Corrections, and it was looking unlikely that would happen Wednesday.
Bird's case has become a cause celebre since he was sent to prison Nov. 17, much to the discomfort of the farmer and scout leader whose 18-year-old daughter saw him wearing a suit for the first time at Tuesday's hearing.
"I don't need people using me as a cause," Bird told the Associated Press recently. "I just want to be home with my family."
Family members and friends formed the www.freewardbird.org movement and website and his saga has been tweeted and updated on Facebook. His case ignited the passions of gun rights advocates, tea party members and libertarians across the "Live Free or Die" state.
The "freewardbird" website now bears the headline, "Ward Bird is a FREE MAN."
Bird was convicted of criminal threatening with a firearm after the March 2006 encounter with Christine Harris at his remote home on a Moultonborough hilltop. The crime carries a minimum, mandatory three-year prison sentence because a weapon was involved.
He did not testify at his trial in 2008. The first time he testified under oath about the incident was at Tuesday's pardon hearing.
"As God is my witness and on the honor of my family and friends in this room today, I did not point or wave a firearm at Christine Harris," Bird said, voice quavering with emotion.
Harris didn't attend the council hearing. Victim advocate Melissa Smith told the council Harris feels "terrorized" by the number of people posting negative comments about her on the Internet.
Smith and Harris' lawyer did not immediately return telephone calls seeking comment Wednesday.
Several councilors questioned Harris' credibility during their deliberations Wednesday.
"We have information regarding a pattern of false accusations by Christine Harris," councilor David Wheeler said.
Harris testified at trial that Bird jumped off the porch and charged her car. Wheeler said the council was presented with "incontrovertible evidence" he did not.
At the time of the incident, Bird was recovering from abdominal surgery barely two weeks earlier. His doctor said he had more than 250 internal sutures and 32 staples holding his skin together. Bird said he was in pain.
"At that point I was not comfortable with any strangers being around," Bird said. "The threat was more emotional than anything."
Bird said he had a .45-caliber handgun in the back waistband of his pants during the encounter with Harris, but he insisted he removed it only to take out the ammunition clip before re-entering his house. He said he kept the gun pointed to the ground while doing so.
A full pardon is a rarity in New Hampshire. There have only been two granted in the past 15 years, most recently in 2003.