Hard time and ill luck for innocent in Alabama

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The Independent Online
LITTLE attention has been paid to Michael Pardue over his 25 years in prison, writes David Usborne. No celebrities baying for his release or movies made about him in Hollywood. Hell, he was one of the lucky ones. Convicted of three murders in Alabama in 1973, he was sentenced to 100 years, but escaped the death penalty. He has spent part of his time in low security jails and even got married in 1988 to a woman on the outside.

Now, however, things are changing. Because it turns out that Mr Pardue, who is now 41, may in fact be one of the unluckiest inmates ever to have darkened a cell in the American South's famously brutal justice system. And, finally, people are lining up for his story. A book is in the making, by author Donald Connery, and last week we heard of a bitter competition between two national networks, CBS and NBC, for a first exclusive television interview with him. (The NBC news magazine, Dateline, won).

And his story is a sure-fire to pull the nation's heartstrings. The man is still in prison, and in all likelihood will remain in prison for the remainder of his life, for murders he did not commit. It is not just his lawyer and his wife who are saying so. Last August, the Alabama State Supreme Court nullified his original conviction, agreeing with a lower court that the lynchpin of the state's prosecution, a confession that he gave to the murders, had been coerced from him after 78 straight hours of interrogation.

So why has he not been freed, and why is there scant chance that he ever will be? Herein lies the confounded ill luck of Mr Pardue. As he put it in a recent interview with the New York Times, "We got a saying. There's nothing so bad that, by trying a little harder, you can't mess up worse."

Where Mr Pardue messed up was in successfully escaping the incarceration that he knew to be unjust. Over the years he broke out of jail three times, once on horseback. Each time, he was swiftly recaptured and put back behind bars. The key is the three times that he ran.

Like in many other states where good politics and toughness on criminals have joined hands, Alabama has a "three strikes and you're out" law. Anyone convicted of crimes, even petty ones, three times is automatically jailed for life. Escaping from prison is one such crime. By trying to reclaim the freedom that even the state now says should rightfully have been his, Mr Pardue managed inadvertently to ensure that it will never be granted him.

It is conceivable that the gathering publicity about the case may weigh on the state's collective conscience. But leniency is not an Alabama tradition, and requests for a retrial have so far been spurned. Moreover, state prosecutors consider the reversal on grounds of coercion a technicality.

David Whetstone, an Alabama district attorney, told the New York Times: "There's no doubt in my mind the police used techniques that are simply not used today. But, the three victims were shotgunned in the face. If Sirhan Sirhan or Charles Manson were released on a technicality, that would not make them innocent."

The night luck first abandoned him, Mr Pardue, aged just 17, went joyriding outside Mobile, Alabama, with a couple of friends. Already his life was a big zero of manual jobs, blotted by the murder of his mother. A year earlier his father had gunned her down in a drunken rage before his son's eyes.

After his car got a flat tyre, he abandoned it on the roadside, went to a petrol station and stole a truck. When a call came from the police station the next morning, he did not know what else had happened during the night. Two men, at two filling stations, had been held up and shot dead.

The detective who got the case, Bill Travis, was famous for his harsh interrogation tactics. Indeed, he was dismissed from duty for "inappropriate behaviour" not long after Mr Pardue's conviction. It was the nature of the 78-hour interrogation, which ended with Mr Pardue confessing to the murders of both petrol attendants and to that of another man whose body was found in a ditch at the very time he was actually in Mr Travis's grasp, that led to the conviction's reversal.

Soon after the interrogation, he recanted the confession, saying that he gave it simply to escape the detective's brutality. Statements implicating Mr Pardue by the two who accompanied him that night - one was a 14-year- old girl - have also been discredited.

"It is a truly outrageous case that unfortunately is probably characteristic of the quality of justice in Alabama," commented Richard Ofshe, a law professor at the University of Cali- fornia, last week. "This ought to be beyond belief to a British audience. It is right up there with the Guildford Four...

"The only thing that distinguishes this from the worst version of everybody's prejudice about justice in the American South is that Michael Pardue is white."

Fighting for Mr Pardue from the outside is a bevy of lawyers and his wife, Becky. What may be more important, however, is the sudden welling of public interest. "This ought to be a cause celebre," remarked Professor Ofshe. In time, assuredly, it will be.