Declaring Joseph Ozment “rehabilitated,” Gov. Haley Barbour included the convicted killer among more than 200 pardons he issued in his last days as governor of Mississippi.
Mr. Ozment was last seen leaving the Governor's Mansion, where he was a convict “trusty,” on Jan. 8 when he got into a car driven by his grandmother.
Ozment, whom Mr. Barbour described Friday as a “free man,” is now being sought by Mississippi authorities investigating the constitutionality of Barbour's mass pardons, which shocked many Mississippians, including victims and law enforcement. The list included more than 40 murderers, rapists, and others convicted of violent crimes.
The unusual manhunt is the latest twist in a peculiar tale of Southern patriarchy and redemption that has dogged Barbour since he left office earlier this month. The governor has defended his actions, saying the state pardon board had already freed most of the people, and that the clemency was mainly designed to give worthy ex-convicts the right to vote and hunt.
But national scrutiny has revealed that those pardoned were both disproportionately white and that many had access to powerful interests in the state. In the aftermath, the state ended its mansion “trusty” program, a judge is deciding the constitutionality of the majority, and the legislature is weighing several bills to curtail the pardon process.
At the same time, the pardons also touched on deeper issues around the nature of redemption and mercy for a country that has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world.
“While his timing and transparency are in question, he has at least reopened a needed national discussion on how justice must be tempered by mercy,” wrote the Monitor's editorial board last week.
But in Mississippi, that debate has taken a backseat to concerns about Ozment's whereabouts. While four other former mansion “trusties” who were released have checked back in with the judge, and vowed to maintain daily contact, Ozment has disappeared.
Attorney General Jim Hood, who called Barbour's mass pardons “a slap to the face” of victims and the judicial system, said Ozment was last seen in northwest Mississippi, from where he hails.
A CNN crew trying to track him down also traveled to Memphis, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala., where Ozment has family, but have so far come up short. On Jan. 17, the network carried an interview with Anthony McCray, one of the five former mansion “trusties” pardoned by Barbour. Mr. McCray called Ozment and the other trusties “nice guys,” and suggested that “God touched Haley Barbour's heart” as the reason Barbour signed the pardons.
The search has raised unprecedented issues, including the extent to which the state can legally force Ozment, who's not wanted for any crime and now has a clean criminal record, to report to a judge.
The issue only became murkier on Friday, when Mr. Hood hinted that there could be a financial reward for information on Ozment's whereabouts. The attorney general has said he may begin a criminal investigation if Ozment continues to refuse to surface.
The fact that Ozment hasn't abided by a judge's order to report for a hearing suggests to Hood that he may be a threat to public safety.
“He doesn't have a lot to lose if he thinks he's going back to prison for life," Hood said Friday. "That's what concerns me about the public safety."