Mississippi Pardongate: What's Next? | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Mississippi Pardongate: What's Next?


A nationwide manhunt ended this week when state investigators tracked former trusty Joseph Ozment to a Wyoming hotel. Ozment's girlfriend helped him elude authorities but is not guily of a crime, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said.

When state investigators caught up to convicted murderer Joseph Ozment Sunday night, he was living in a Laramie, Wyo., hotel and driving the Mercedes-Benz of his fiancée, LaChina Tillman, an engineer with defense contracting giant Northrop Grumman.

After several weeks of trying to track Ozment, investigators from the Mississippi attorney general's office served him with court papers, Attorney General Jim Hood told reporters at an afternoon press conference Monday. 

Convicted of killing a store clerk in DeSoto County in 1992, Ozment is one of five former inmates who lived and worked in the governor's mansion during Haley Barbour's tenure. Barbour pardoned all five just before leaving office in January.

Citing a provision in the state constitution that requires individuals to publish notice 30 days before receiving a pardon, Hood convinced Hinds County Circuit Judge Tomie Green to temporarily halt the pardons. Green also ordered the five trustys to check in daily with the Mississippi Department of Corrections and to appear at a hearing on Jan. 23. Ozment did not attend those proceedings.

The search for Ozment had been narrowed to Colorado Springs, Colo., where Hood said Tillman had bought a house. After receiving a tip from an informant in Wyoming, investigators found Ozment staying in a hotel under an assumed name. In the process of trying to avoid being served, Ozment bumped one of the investigators with his car, Hood said. Later, Ozment signed a receipt of service with the AG's investigators and two Laramie police officers.

Hood provided reporters with copies of the couple's wedding save-the-date announcement, which contains a photo of Ozment and Tillman brandishing her engagement ring in a joyous embrace outside what Hood said is the governor's mansion, where Ozment was living as a corrections prisoner, usually called a trusty.

"It's unfortunate how things have occurred at the mansion and how these prisoners were handled," Hood said, noting that Ozment is dressed in street clothes in the photos rather than the striped green-and-white jumpsuit that minimum-security inmates are required to wear. "This guy's got a tattoo with Aryan Brotherhood on his back, and this lady—who has a college degree and is an engineer and is doing very well—has taken up with him."

An Internet search of Tillman's name reveals that Women of Color Magazine recognized her as a 2008 rising star in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

The Barbour pardons spurred a maelstrom of controversy in Mississippi and across the nation, prompting Barbour to respond using several national media outlets.

Barbour has said that he only released 26 prisoners from custody, which, according to his math, represents only 0.0012 percent of the more than 80,000 people who are doing time in state prisons or are on probation or parole. Hood addressed statements Barbour made raising questions about the role of an assistant attorney general working for MDOC. Both Barbour and Tom Fortner, a lawyer representing several of the mansion trustys, alleged that Assistant Attorney General David Scott, who works for Hood, worked with gubernatorial adviser Daryl Neely on the pardon process.

Hood stated that Scott only advised Barbour's office of the constitutional publication requirement. "This is a sideshow by Tom Fortner and the former governor to divert attention from the fact that the former governor has loosed his favored murderers upon the public without any legal authority to do so. These untruths and mischaracterizations are indeed the sign of a desperate man," Hood said in a statement.

The attorney general has said that his office will eventually review previous gubernatorial pardons to ascertain if pardonees complied with the law in those instances. Asked why he didn't challenge a round of clemencies Barbour granted in 2008 to five killers, Hood said he "wasn't aware that publication was not complied with."

"It's not like somebody in our office is assigned to look to see if publications are done. I'm sure future Ags will do that, will probably make sure that the pardons were done correctly," he said. "I suspect future governors will be more careful in following the constitution after this debacle."

On Friday, Feb. 3, a preliminary injunction hearing takes place. Green has ordered the five mansion trustys to attend the hearing.

"If she finds the pardons are void, she may leave it like it is," Hood said, meaning Green has the discretion to re-incarcerate the men or allow them to remain free.

Hood said he would request summary judgment in late February to and ask that the trustys be returned to MDOC custody to serve out the remainder of their sentences.

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