Miss. Supreme Court upholds dismissal of 1960 conviction of black veteran

The Mississippi Supreme Court has rejected a white supremacist's efforts to overturn a judge's order that threw out the 1960 burglary conviction of now-dead Korean War veteran Clyde Kennard, a black man wrongfully accused of a crime after he attempted to enroll in an all-white Mississippi college in the 1950s.

In 2006, Forrest County Circuit Judge Bob Helfrich acted in response to a petition by Gov. Haley Barbour, several former judges, a university president and others.

While Barbour had said he believes Kennard is innocent, the governor denied a request to pardon the farmer who died of colon cancer shortly after being released from jail in 1963.

Helfrich ruled Kennard was innocent and threw out Kennard's conviction.

Richard Barrett, a self-professed white supremacist from Hinds County who leads the Nationalist Movement, appealed the decision. Barrett said the judge had no authority to exonerate Kennard.

Justice Jess Dickinson, writing Thursday for the Supreme Court, said Barrett had no authority to intervene in the case. Dickinson said proceedings such as that before Helfrich involve only a defendant and prosecutors.

"Since the State of Mississippi is the only proper party to bring an appeal, and since the state does not appeal but, indeed, applauds Judge Helfrich's decision, we have no need to address any of the errors alleged by applicants, who have no standing in this matter," Dickinson wrote.

Momentum in the Kennard case had increased as part of a wave of renewed investigations and prosecutions of civil rights crimes in Mississippi.

Kennard was convicted in 1960 of buying $25 worth of chicken feed he knew to be stolen, and was sentenced to seven years in prison. Later, the only witness against Kennard recanted his testimony.

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 also 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.

Former U.S. Appeals Court Judge Charles Pickering, who presented the petition to exonerate Kennard to Helfrich, said Thursday the ruling puts closure on the case.

"I'm pleased this chapter is finally closed. Clyde Kennard's name deserved to be cleared," Pickering said.