The Cycle of Injustice: The Story of Michael Pardue
By Anne Good, as told by Becky Pardue
In the early sixties, Bob Dylan asked the rhetorical question, "How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?" The case of Michael Pardue turns this thirty-year-old abstraction into a literal question.
Exactly how many times must Michael Pardue stare at the cold, dank ceiling of his tiny prison cell before he can taste the freedom he so richly deserves?
In 1973, just a few short years after Dylan's beat generation anthem was a national hit, Pardue was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to life in prison. In 1997, all charges against him were dropped. This story should have a happy ending by now but on the Richter scale of justice, this one is off the charts. In a logic-defying decision, Pardue remains behind bars for another crime: escape.
And another tragic case of injustice unfolds.
Michael Pardue is serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a 1987 escape, his third attempt to flee from an illegal imprisonment. In 1973, the State of Alabama wrongfully convicted Pardue for three murders of which he appears to be completely innocent. Convicted at the age of seventeen, he has spent the last twenty-six years behind bars. In 1997, Alabama's highest courts ordered the State to give Michael Pardue a fair trial or drop the charges. Facing the impossible task of gaining a conviction in a fair trial, all charges stemming from Pardue's 1973 arrest and conviction were forever dropped. Yet today, he is sentenced to remain imprisoned until the day he dies because, having lost all hope in a system that had failed him again and again, he fled.
WHAT OCCURRED ON MAY 21, 1973
In May of 1973, after seventy-eight hours of interrogation with no lawyer, no sleep, and little food, Michael Pardue would have admitted to being Bob Dylan himself just to stop the brutality. At the tender age of seventeen, Pardue was all too familiar with beatings and intimidation. He grew up poor in south Alabama, the son of an abusive father, and a mother who meant the world to him. Two years earlier, his mother died in his arms after his father shot her in the chest while on a drunken rampage. Now a high school dropout, homeless, and working odd jobs when he could find them, law enforcement in the small southern town of Saraland kept a suspicious eye out for him.
In the pre-dawn hours of May 22, 1973, Ronald Rider (20) and Harvey Hodges (68), attendants at two gas stations 16 miles apart in Mobile and Baldwin counties, were brutally murdered. A passing motorist witnessed two men fleeing the scene of the murder of Ronald Rider on the Baldwin County side of the causeway at 2:00 AM in a white compact car bearing Baldwin County plates.
An All Points Bulletin was promptly issued.
Earlier that night, Michael was with Theresa Lanier (15) and John Brown (21) in John's Saraland motel room. Michael's old rattletrap Chevrolet was stranded at the motel with a flat tire. He found a pickup truck with the keys in it at a garage next door to the motel. Believing he could find a tire and return the vehicle before anyone knew it was missing, he took the truck. He asked Theresa and John if they wanted to go. John declined while Michael and Theresa headed toward Mobile, a neighboring town. They searched a number of places without luck and were headed back toward Saraland when the truck got stuck in a sand-bed at the foot of a drawbridge some eight miles from the motel. After an unsuccessful struggle, they abandoned the truck, crossed the bridge on foot, and hot-wired a red Volkswagen Beetle from the Scott Paper company parking lot. Both vehicles had Mobile County plates. They returned to the Plantation Motel where John had remained and they spent the night. The location of the Motel turned out to be only about two miles from the Hodges murder scene in Saraland, AL. Police traced the stolen truck, then the VW to Michael Pardue. He was telephoned at his grandmother's home and, with a friend's assistance, voluntarily went to the Saraland police station, believing he would be charged for the theft of the truck and VW. Twenty-six years later, he has yet to return home. Michael was no Boy Scout; he took the truck and Volkswagen for a joy ride, but he was no murderer either.
SECURING A CONFESSION AND CONVICTION, ALABAMA STYLE
The first few hours of interrogation did, in fact, focus on his actual crimes that evening. However, as the hours progressed, police began to focus more and more on the two service station murders, which Michael knew nothing about at that point. As the hours turned into days, the police became insistent about his involvement in the murders, and the scene at the S.P.D. went from bad to worse. As many as ten investigators and prosecutors from several cities and counties subjected Michael to a non-stop interrogation for six days. During that time he was beaten, denied food, sleep, and all contact with anyone outside the police, including two separate lawyers who were refused permission to see him.
While Michael was being interrogated, Alabama Power Company workers found a skeleton in a ditch. The body was later identified as Theodore White (43).
Police charged Michael with White's killing, even though it is unlikely that he was even murdered. Remarkably, Theodore White's official cause of death is listed as "unknown." To stop the torture, Michael finally admitted to all three killings, regurgitating the crime details as his interrogators told them. Badgered to produce the murder weapon, he named a relative who owned a shotgun. When this shotgun was taken from J.B. Duncan's bedroom closet, there were cobwebs and rust in the barrels. This suggested that it had not been fired in years. Standing in the kitchen while holding this shotgun, police agreed that it could not have been the much sought after murder weapon.
Because it was sawed-off illegally, they confiscated the gun. Later, this shotgun turned up at Michael's trial, freshly fired and cleaned. The jury had no trouble believing it was the murder weapon.
The Duncan's would have testified in court that the gun was dirty when taken from their home and that it was impossible for Michael to have taken this gun and returned it without their knowledge. Oddly, they were never questioned by the DA's office; unbelievably, Michael's defense attorney never contacted them.
Similar brutal tactics got a confession out of John Brown. Theresa Lanier was induced to testify against John and Michael by threats of capital punishment and an offer of immunity. The three "confessions" used in the 1973 trials were entirely contradictory with one another's and were contrary to the forensic and physical facts of the cases. John Brown "signed" his confession despite being illiterate and unable to read it. Michael's Baldwin County trial lasted about 1 ½ hours. Heading the prosecution in Baldwin County was DA Jimmy Hendrix (yes, that is his real name!) who was later convicted for his part in a drug smuggling scheme and sent to the penitentiary. Leading the Baldwin County investigation was Bobby Stewart, also imprisoned for drug smuggling. Mobile County's Chief investigator, William Travis was dismissed from the Sheriff's department amid allegations of brutality and corruption.
Mobile's Asst. DA Willis Holloway, investigator and prosecutor was later imprisoned for jury tampering, bribery and extortion. Michael's appointed attorney, a former Mobile County Assistant District Attorney was ruled grossly ineffective by a Federal Court Judge. In his decision, Judge Wm. Cassidy stated that his representation in Michael's case was "as good as no representation at all."
Young and inexperienced, Michael Pardue didn't stand a chance against this mob-style justice. Alone, poor and without influence, his case was doomed.
Under public pressure to quickly solve these killings, law enforcement officials were hailed for their decisive action and closure in the cases.
Guilt or innocence was a secondary issue.
JUST THE FACTS, PLEASE
HOPE IN A HOPELESS STATE
In 1983, Becky Pouyadou came into Michael's life and breathed hope into his bleak situation. They began corresponding, falling in love one envelope at a time. They met at Thanksgiving in the visiting room at the minimum custody Fountain Correctional Facility, and were married in Holman Prison in 1988. Their fate was sealed. They would fight side by side for Michael's freedom.
It has been a hard and long battle, but since then, Michael's 1973 convictions have all been overturned by the State's highest courts, unanimously finding the confession upon which the State rested its entire case was forced, illegal and inadmissible. Alabama was ordered to give Michael a fair trial or drop charges. Unable to muster any reliable evidence tying Michael to the crimes, they dropped the charges.
THE BATTLE CONTINUES
Years before his successful appeal of these wrongful convictions, Michael, having lost all hope, escaped from prison three times. Each escape was non-violent and he was captured shortly thereafter, returning to prison without resistance. However, Alabama has a Habitual Felony Offender Law, which applies to prison escapes. Under its terms, Michael is currently sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.
The great irony of this case is painfully obvious: if the State of Alabama had not violated Michael Pardue's constitutional rights in 1973, he never would have been in prison. Had he not been wrongly imprisoned, he would not have escaped. Had he not escaped, he would not be in prison. These head-spinning conclusions would be absurd if the ramifications were not so tragic.
Why did this happen? For the same reason so many wrongful convictions occur. At the time, there was intense pressure on the police to quickly solve these violent crimes. Pardue, without the knowledge or resources to defend himself, was a convenient scapegoat. Investigators and prosecutors won public and professional acclaim with a quick, clean closure to these notorious crimes.
Did they know Michael Pardue was innocent? Did they alter evidence? Did they manufacture and plant evidence? Did they hide exculpatory evidence? Did they commit perjury? The answer to many ofthese questions may well be "yes."
How can Alabama justify Life without the Possibility of Parole for a Non-violent Escape?
According to Becky Pardue, if we ask Prosecutor Michael Godwin this question, "he will open his law book. He will play the straight guy. He will tell you again and again that he has 'no discretion in this matter.' In an unguarded moment, he let the truth slip. 'I have indicted and convicted Michael Pardue to die in prison because I think he is a murderer.' In fact, the 1987 escape is of little consequence to Godwin. It is merely a vehicle for his self-appointed demagoguery. He has taken it upon himself to punish Michael Pardue for convictions that The Alabama Supreme Court has ruled illegal.
Alabama's position is clear. They intend to keep Michael Pardue in their clutches for the rest of his life. What is happening to Michael should not happen in America."
According to Bob Dylan, "the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind ... the answer is blowing in the wind."
This case has gained international support through:
The New York Times, The London Mirror, PEOPLE Magazine, Birmingham News
Germany's ProSibein Television, Germany's Suddeutsche Zeitung, BBC
France's Le' Liberation, France's La Marche du Siecle, India's EENADU daily newspaper,
DATELINE with Stone Phillips, The LEEZA Show, American Journal, Extra, This Morning
Catherine Crier Fox News, CBS Eye on America, NBC Today, National Examiner
From his cell in maximum security St. Clair Correctional Facility, Michael Pardue thanks you for your concern and support.
This case is currently under investigation by Investigative Resources, Mobile Alabama.
UPDATE: The future for Michael Pardue
As is true for the majority of wrongly convicted people, a long, hard effort of many years by many people finally results in some forward movement. In Michael's case, a couple of options are opening. One is the possibility of being paroled for the escapes he attempted fleeing the wrongful conviction for the three murders he never committed.
Parole is now possible because the Alabama Supreme Court unanimously ruled to throw out his 1978 robbery conviction making Michael no longer subject to life without parole. That conviction kept Pardue in prison for life without parole under the state's Habitual Offender Act. Still before the federal court in Birmingham is the question of whether to throw out an escape charge based on the state court's ruling. Pardue's record includes failed escapes in 1978 and 1987, both of which are under appeal. These escapes are covered in the story by Anne Good.
Other moves to rectify this wrong are in the works: Pardue has filed a civil lawsuit, through his attorney, James G. Curenton, claiming he was "coerced to plead murder, imprisoned for more than 25 years, deprived of his freedom of movement, suffered a loss of enjoyment of life, mental anguish, emotional distress, deprivation of the enjoyment of children and family, humiliation of being marked a murderer and a loss of career opportunities," according to court documents.
The Court's favorable ruling for Michael coincided with findings by a ballistics expert that the gun prosecutors claimed Pardue used to murder Will Harvey Hodges and Ronald Rider could not have killed them. Pardue's attorneys plan to use these findings in their civil case.
In no way is Michael Pardue out of the woods yet. Alabama has had a vested interest in keeping this man behind bars, and will likely put more roadblocks in the way of freedom before it's all over. It is no wonder that the Pardues plan to leave the state when Freedom Day arrives.
A BOOK ABOUT THE PARDUE CASE IN THE WORKS
There is a book in progress on the injustice to Pardue and on the Mike and Becky Pardue personal story by Donald Connery, former Time-Life foreign correspondent whose books include Guilty Until Proven Innocent and Convicting the Innocent on other miscarriages of justice.
The book by Donald Connery is a collaboration with the Pardues, spanning countless interviews, documents of the case, and is to be the most definitive account yet written.
The staff of Justice: Denied sends its best wishes for freedom for both Michael and Becky Pardue
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