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Michael Pardue

Other Alabama exonerations
Michael Pardue was wrongly convicted and later exonerated of three 1973 murders in Baldwin and Mobile Counties in Alabama. By the time he was exonerated of the murders of 20-year-old Ronald Rider, 68-year-old Harvey Hodges, and 43-year-oldTheodore Roosevelt White, Pardue had spent more than 27 years in prison.

In the early morning hours of May 22, 1973, Rider, the night manager of Thoni’s gas station on the Mobile Causeway in Baldwin County, Alabama, was found dead of a severe head injury. A total of $30 was taken.

Several hours later and less than 20 miles away, Hodges was found shot to death in the gas station where he worked in Saraland, Alabama in adjacent Mobile County. Police determined that $58 had been taken.

Later that day, an employee of Alabama Power, the state’s utility company, reported finding the skeletonized remains of a body in a drainage ditch in Mobile County, not far from the gas station where Hodges was found slain. The body was later identified as White.

Police quickly focused on a trio of people who had been at a motel in Saraland, Alabama, about two miles from the location of Hodge’s murder—Pardue, who was 17, his 16-year-old girlfriend, Theresa Lanier, and 21-year-old John Brown.

The past year had been tumultuous for Pardue. He and two other younger siblings were present on April 24, 1972, when Pardue’s father fatally shot Pardue’s mother in the trailer where they lived. Pardue’s father had been convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to prison. In January 1973, Pardue had pled guilty as a youthful offender to burglary of a vehicle and had been placed on probation.

On the night of May 22, 1973—several hours before Rider was killed—Pardue, accompanied by Lanier, had stolen a truck from a nearby garage in search of a tire for his car, which had a flat tire at the motel where Brown was staying. Pardue would later say they intended to return the truck before the garage opened for business the following morning. However, the truck got stuck in a sandy ditch on the side of the road. They then stole a red Volkswagen Beetle before returning to Brown’s motel room.

When the police connected Pardue to the car thefts, they began looking for him. When Pardue learned police wanted to speak to him, he came to the Saraland police station on the morning of May 23, 1973, believing he was going to be questioned about the stolen vehicles.

He was interrogated for the next 78 hours. During this time, according to Pardue, he was beaten, starved, sleep deprived, denied access to his family, and urinated on himself multiple times. At one point, Pardue told the officers that he “needed some help,” but officers failed to clarify if that meant he was asking for an attorney.

During the interrogation, two different lawyers separately came into the police station saying they represented Pardue. David Barnett, who had represented Pardue in a previous misdemeanor case and had been called by Pardue’s grandmother, came to the station. Police refused to allow him access to Pardue. Attorney Chris Stanard came into the Saraland Jail and instructed the officers not to question Pardue without him present. Stanard also was rebuffed.

By 8:30 p.m. on May 23, Pardue gave his first statement—police had first read Pardue his Miranda rights after 30 hours of confinement and interrogation. In this first statement, Pardue confessed to the killing of Ronald Rider. On May 25, Pardue gave a second statement, admitting he killed Hodges and White. Hodges’s cause of death was listed as two shotgun blasts, and White’s cause of death was listed as undetermined.

On May 29, 1973, Lanier was charged with murder after giving a statement. She later said she gave the statement after being threatened with the death penalty. In her statement, Lanier said Brown had killed Rider.

On May 30, 1973, Brown was charged with murder after police said he confessed to killing Rider. Brown would later assert that he had been interrogated over four days and had been beaten badly enough to require medical attention. Brown signed a confession despite being illiterate and unable to read. The statements of Pardue, Lanier, and Brown were all contradictory. Pardue later asserted that because he did not commit the crimes, the police had fed him details for the confession.

Pardue, Lanier, and Brown were charged with the murder of Rider in Baldwin County. Pardue was separately charged in Mobile County with the murders of Hodges and White. Pardue was also charged with grand larceny in the Rider and Hodges cases.

On August 14, 1973, Pardue went to trial in Baldwin County Circuit Court for the murder of Rider. The trial lasted less than two hours. Lanier testified on behalf of the prosecution after she agreed to cooperate in return for pleading guilty as a youthful offender to a manslaughter charge. The prosecution also presented a shortened summary of Pardue’s confession and a .410-gauge shotgun, which was said to be the murder weapon.

Nelson E. Grubb, a state toxicologist, testified that he had performed an autopsy on Rider. Although he first listed the cause of death as a blow from a crowbar, he testified the cause of death was a gunshot wound in the brain. Grubb had revised his opinion on the cause of death after Pardue confessed that he was holding a sawed-off double-barreled .410-gauge shotgun, when Rider turned and raised a crowbar. In Pardue’s confession, Pardue said he panicked, dropped the shotgun, and it went off, killing Rider. In his confession, Pardue had alternately said that he left the gun in a field, tossed it into a pond, and finally said it was at the home of a family member.

Police had recovered such a weapon in the closet of the family member. The police had test-fired it and it was presented to the jury as the murder weapon.

Grubb testified that he had examined the gun, fibers in the shotgun, and a rag that police said they found in Pardue's car. Grubb said the rag had powder burns, and that the rag consisted of the same fibers as the fibers found in the shotgun. He also testified that fibers found on the mat of Pardue’s automobile were “exactly” the same as fibers found on the gun.

Grubb also testified that dirt and bits of clam shell removed from around Thoni's Service Station were similar to dirt and clam shell bits in Pardue’s car. He also testified that an imprint on the rag found in the automobile was the same as the shape of the sawed-off portion of the gun barrel. He said the gun was well-oiled and greased and the same kind of grease on the gun was on the rag. Grubb testified there were no fingerprints on the gun. He said that although no dirt or shell bits were found on Pardue’s clothing or shoes, the items had not been examined until June 7, and by that time had been cleaned. Pardue’s attorney, Stanard, who had recently practiced law as a prosecutor, neglected to call key witnesses, including the family who owned the shotgun and did not object to the introduction of the shotgun into evidence. Stanard did not cross-examine Grubb about the fact that Grubb did not have a medical license.

On August 14, 1973, the jury convicted Pardue of Ronald Rider’s murder. He was sentenced to life in prison. In a separate trial, not long after, Brown was also convicted of murder in the first-degree and sentenced to life in prison.

On October 24, 1973, Pardue appeared in Mobile County Circuit Court. He pled guilty to the murders of Hodges and White in Mobile County. Before he pled guilty, Pardue was told by Assistant District Attorney Charlie Graddick that Pardue would get a sentence of “death by electrocution” if he did not plead guilty. However, at the time, capital punishment had been outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Pardue’s attorney, Stanard, failed to inform Pardue that Graddick’s representation was false. Pardue was sentenced to two more sentences of life in prison, all to be served consecutively.

Pardue filed an appeal five days later on October 29, 1973, which was withdrawn by Stanard without Pardue’s knowledge or consent. Years later, Stanard would be characterized as “grossly ineffective” and “worse than no representation at all” by a federal court judge.

In the summer of 1977, Pardue escaped from a prison near Montgomery, but he was caught three days later by authorities. On July 20, 1978, Pardue faked appendicitis and fled from the hospital that he had been taken to for surgery. He was rearrested a week later. After his escape, he was charged and convicted of robbery and pled guilty. In March of 1987, Pardue was on horseback on a work detail when he galloped off. He came to a vacant house, which happened to be the home of a deputy warden. He broke in and took a .357-Magnum revolver and the keys to the deputy warden’s gold Corvette. Pardue later traded the gun for a tank of gas. He was caught a few days later at the home of a family member. He was convicted of escape, burglary, and two counts of theft.

On September 2, 1994, the Supreme Court of Alabama reversed the murder conviction for the Rider homicide on the grounds that Pardue had been held and interrogated for 30 hours before being administered his Miranda rights. The court ordered the statement suppressed.

Only a few months later, on December 16, 1994, ruling on a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Alabama overturned Pardue’s convictions for the murders of Hodges and White. The federal court ruled that Pardue had not been advised of his right to request being prosecuted as a youthful offender.

In 1995, Pardue was re-indicted for the murder of Hodges. He was prosecuted as an adult after his request to be prosecuted as a youthful offender was denied. Prior to trial, Pardue moved to suppress his May 25, 1973, statement, claiming it was involuntary due to physical abuse, the failure to read him his Miranda rights, and the denial of a lawyer. The motion was denied.

He went to trial in March 1995 in Mobile County Circuit Court. The prosecution presented portions of the original confession tapes. These tapes had not been used at the 1973 trial and had not been disclosed until just before the second trial began. Six months before the trial, a judge had ordered the prosecution to hand over all files pertaining to the case including any tapes. The state first said that tapes no longer existed, and then revealed the tapes did in fact exist just prior to the trial.

In Pardue’s defense, a clinical psychologist testified that Pardue had symptoms of a mental disorder resulting from years of physical abuse by his father. At age four, his father had broken his arm in two places. The psychologist also said Pardue had suffered emotional trauma from witnessing his mother’s violent death. The expert testified that a lack of access to family members or an attorney would have significantly compromised Pardue’s ability to represent himself effectively.

In March 1995, Pardue was convicted of Hodges’s murder and grand larceny. He was sentenced to 100 years minus 22 years served.

On May 9, 1995, the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges in the White murder case.

Years later, exculpatory evidence was found which had not been introduced at trial, including alibi testimony and forensic photographs. Prior to the 1995 trial, prosecutors had obtained a taped statement from an alibi witness stating that Pardue had been with the witness at the time of the murders in 1973. The prosecution also had photographs from the Hodges crime scene showing that Hodges had been shot only once, which contradicted Pardue’s May 25, 1973, confession statement that Hodges had been shot with both barrels of the shotgun. In addition, independent forensic analysts concluded that the shotgun presented at trial could not have been the gun which killed Harvey Hodges based on the bullet wound. By then, Lanier and Brown had recanted their statements implicating Pardue.

On August 23, 1996, the Court of Criminal Appeals of Alabama reversed the conviction for the Hodges murder, finding that Pardue’s confession was involuntary and should not have been admitted.

On June 25, 1997, the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the Hodges case. On August 29, 1997, the Baldwin County District Attorney’s office dismissed the Rider murder case.

Despite the dismissal of the three murder cases, Pardue remained in prison with a sentence of life without parole. The sentence had been imposed under the state’s habitual offender statute based on his convictions for the three prison escapes.

On June 25, 1999, Pardue filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Mobile County and many of the officials who contributed to his wrongful convictions. The lawsuit accused police officers, criminalist Marion Sennett and prosecutors, including Willis Holloway, who had taken Pardue's confession, of fabricating evidence. The lawsuit claimed that the shotgun that was presented in court was rusty and covered with cobwebs when it was found in the family member's closet, and that the police had cleaned it up, oiled it and test-fired it so that it appeared to be the murder weapon. The lawsuit further claimed that the police had planted the rags found in Pardue's car.

During the proceedings, Pardue’s lawyer, James Curenton Jr., learned that several boxes of documents from the case, which the prosecution had previously claimed had been destroyed during Hurricane Frederic in 1979, still existed and were in the possession of the prosecution. In the boxes, Curenton found evidence of a witness who reported finding Rider’s body in the Thoni’s station and seeing two men leave the station as the witness approached. Curenton said he found a report saying that shoe prints found in the mud outside the station were identified as being made by shoes issued by the Alabama Department of Corrections. Curenton said records showed that not long before Rider was shot, two men had walked off a prison farm in Fountain, Alabama, about 55 miles northwest of Mobile.

Curenton also found a business card of a witness who had seen two men leave the station right after Hodges was fatally shot. The witness had written down a description of the car and the license plate number. The number had been traced to a car that had been stolen. Years later, Curenton said, “They knew Mike Pardue didn’t commit these crimes. Two escaped convicts committed these shootings. They framed Pardue instead.”

In 2000, the Supreme Court of Alabama ruled that Pardue’s guilty plea pertaining to the second escape conviction had been improperly accepted by the court, and it vacated his conviction and sentence for those charges. The trial court then resentenced Pardue for the remaining escape charges, allowing Pardue to be released on parole. On February 15, 2001, Pardue was released from prison, 27 years and 9 months after his incarceration originally began.

In 2003, as part of the civil lawsuit proceedings, Pardue's cousin, Elizabeth Beniot, testified at a deposition about the day that the shotgun was seized by police from her family home. She said she was 13 or 14 years old and was playing outside when police arrived. She said she saw them leave with the shotgun. Over the years, she said that her father, her mother and her aunt had discussed how they did not believe the gun was the murder weapon. "It was always discussed...that when the shotgun left the house, that it had spider webs and there was no way it could have been used in a murder," Benoit said. She said her father said the reason police confiscated it was because the gun had been rendered illegal when the barrels were sawed off. Benoit said that sometime after the trial, her father tried to get the gun back because it wasn't his—he had been holding it for Benoit's uncle or grandfather. Her testimony was characterized as hearsay.

In April 2010, the city of Saraland, Alabama agreed to a settlement, the amount of which was not disclosed. In 2011, a federal judge dismissed the claims made against Holloway, the other prosecutors, and Sennett. The judge ruled that Pardue had no proof to back up the claims of evidence fabrication regarding the shotgun and the rags. Pardue filed a claim for compensation under Alabama's wrongful conviction, but the claim was denied.

Pardue and his wife, Becky Pardue, subsequently co-authored a book concerning wrongful conviction titled, “Freeing the Innocent: How We Did It— a Handbook for the Wrongly Convicted.” His case was the subject of a book published in France—Justice to the Absurd—by a French lawyer who had become intrigued with the case.

Although none of the police or prosecutors were sanctioned for their conduct in the prosecution of Pardue, some were later prosecuted or disciplined for other misconduct. Jimmy Hendrix, who was the prosecutor in Pardue’s 1973 Baldwin County trial, was later convicted of drug smuggling and sentenced to prison. Bobby Stewart, the Baldwin County investigator who took Pardue’s first statement, was also imprisoned for drug smuggling and providing protection to others in the drug operation. William Travis, the Mobile County chief investigator, was later dismissed from the Sheriff’s department due to “allegations of brutality and corruption.” Willis Holloway, Mobile County’s Assistant District Attorney who was present for Pardue’s second statement, was convicted of jury tampering, bribery, and extortion, and sentenced to twenty years in prison.

In May of 2011, Pardue was arrested for possessing a firearm. His parole was revoked, and he was sent back to prison. Pardue appealed, and he was subsequently released. In 2017, Pardue was convicted of burglary and sentenced to two years in a rehabilitation center in Anniston, Alabama. The judge attributed his actions to a lack of treatment and resources for his struggle with alcoholism. Pardue successfully completed this treatment. On February 15, 2019, Pardue died from a heart attack, three days after his 63rd birthday.

– Maurice Possley and Abigail Voigt

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Posting Date: 8/1/2023
Last Updated: 8/1/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1973
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No