Photo | Provided by author • Michael Pardue
By Donald S. Connery
No one deserved a joyful life deep into the future more than Mobile’s Michael Rene Pardue.
But it was not to be.
The once famous “wrong man” was 63 on Friday, Feb. 15, when his heart gave out, just weeks after preventive surgery, on his way to an afternoon of fishing with friends.
His pickup truck careened down the roadside before it hit a tree on a narrow stretch of Dauphin Island Parkway. The explosion and fireball made the local evening news, with no identification of the victim.
Incredibly, little other notice was taken even though Pardue’s saga of injustice, like Alabama’s Scottsboro Boys scandal of the 1930s, reached a national and international audience in the 1990s. The scale and complexities of his fight for freedom from undeserved incarceration were unique in legal history.
His accomplishment in overpowering the myth that he was a confessed triple murderer at age 17 stands out among the 2,382 accounts of wrongful convictions currently listed in the National Registry of Exonerations, the Bible of the DNA-fueled innocence movement of recent times.
Like Jean Valjean of “Les Miserables,” Michael Pardue was a tragic hero.
On the one hand, he endured a boyhood of abuse by an alcoholic father who shot and killed his mother. He was 16 when she died in his arms. Beginning a year later, the teenager was robbed of a quarter century of his adult years by a criminal justice system flying wildly off the tracks.
His imprisonment from 1973 to 2001 matched the 27 years of Nelson Mandela’s internment on South Africa’s Robben Island.
On the other hand, with the help of the love of his life and volunteer attorneys, his seemingly endless barrage of scribbled pro se (inmate created) appeals to Alabama’s courts led eventually to an unprecedented achievement. He overcame convictions for three homicides he did not commit and three convictions for escapes he did commit.
At the start of his encounters with the justice system, Pardue was saved from execution only by good luck: the U.S. Supreme Court’s temporary nationwide moratorium on the application of capital punishment. If he had been strapped into Alabama’s “Yellow Mama” electric chair in 1973, he would have vanished from sight.
(One of the many shocking revelations in the mountainous legal record is that his appointed attorney, in league with the prosecutors, used the teenager’s ignorance of the moratorium as leverage to get him to abandon his claims of innocence and accept imprisonment. A long time later, a judge declared the suspect’s representation “was worse than no representation at all.”)
Pardue’s second great stroke of good fortune came along 10 years later when Lebecca (Becky) Jean Pouyadou, a smart and lovely woman running a T-shirt business in Mobile, entered his life. He had sent her some designs he sketched in his cell.
Becky, once a nomadic hippie but now back home with her mother, was the daughter of a naval officer. She was a volunteer at a rape crisis center and would tear up at any hint of injustice or mistreatment.
As for Mike, he was no longer the scrawny, bewildered boy who fought off predators by pretending to be the vicious serial killer he never was. Becky was impressed on her first prison visit by the strong, sandy-haired, soft-voiced, handsome man who seemed out of place.
So began a love story that belongs in a pantheon of great romances. He feared telling her of his innocence of any major crime, expecting not to be believed; she searched for the truth on her own. What she discovered did indeed defy belief.
On May 21, 1973, the horrific nighttime shotgun slayings of two filling station attendants, Harvey Hodges and Ronald Ryder, led to media alarms that struck fear in the hearts of citizens of greater Mobile. Other headlines told of two criminals who had escaped from prison.
Simultaneously, Michael Pardue was up to no good. With his mother dead, his father in prison and his younger siblings in his grandmother’s home where he did not feel welcome, the virtual orphan, nicknamed “Monkey,” had taken to sleeping in the woods or in his $50 Chevrolet.
It was, then, not too surprising that on the night of the killings he and an equally woeful 15-year-old girl named Theresa Lanier went on a joyride to nowhere. Their round-trip drive from Saraland through Prichard and into the Mobile Shipyard before returning to Saraland was made possible by stupid acts of juvenile delinquency: Mike swiping two old tires from a garage that didn’t fit his disabled car, then stealing an old truck and later hotwiring a more expensive Volkswagen when the truck got stuck in sand.
The following morning, he learned the Saraland cops were looking for him. Their message was, “No big deal. Just tell Mike we’d like him to stop by.” He delivered himself to police headquarters to fess up to his follies.
But the chief investigator, William Travis, a burly man in white boots with a reputation for wringing confessions out of suspects, true or false, was not interested in his minor crimes. He was bent on extracting details of the boy’s supposed shotgun rampage at the two gas stations, an easier task than hunting for the escaped convicts.
After interrogations by tag teams of detectives from two counties over four days, with attorneys kept at bay, Pardue succumbed to the marathon of psychological and physical brutality.
Although no blood, fingerprints or other evidence connected him to the murders, Mike confessed to everything the authorities demanded. Believing he would be executed if he failed to fully cooperate, he admitted responsibility for the decomposed corpse of a drug dealer found in the woods. It was a possible homicide the cops were unable to solve.
His subsequent trial was littered with a fake eyewitness account by girlfriend Theresa (under threat of prosecution; she later recanted), other fabrications and what is known as “testilying” — false testimony by police. A dusty, cobwebbed, sawed-off shotgun shined up as the murder weapon was offered to the jurors. Their guilty verdict was reached in less than two hours. Shipped off to a life sentence, Mike became the youngest inmate in Alabama’s most dangerous lockups.
When Becky Pouyadou became Mike’s champion, she changed her name to Pardue during the long wait for permission to marry him in a Holman prison ceremony in 1988. Figuring it was impossible to undermine his murder convictions, they pinned their hopes on his being paroled. Mike had become a model prisoner after the foolishness of brief, nonviolent escapes in his first five years of confinement.
The first time, he rode off on a bicycle while outside the walls training bloodhounds to chase escapees. The second time, he took off from a city hospital after drinking gallons of water to stimulate appendicitis.
Pardue’s warden was so impressed by the couple — not to speak of Mike’s quiet nature, good manners, work ethic and jack-of-all-trades skills — that he repeatedly approved eight-hour passes, 14 in all, so that they could spend time at a Best Western motel less than a mile down the road from the walls and razor wires.
People magazine would later tell of Becky’s elaborate room decorations to produce a proper atmosphere. A New York Times article described the fresh sheets from home, the flowers, the good food and pretty pictures. Becky was quoted: “We would make love all day and laugh and cry and hold.”
On other occasions, she would drive her pickup truck with a mattress to a hidden place on the 8,200-acre prison ranch for a rendezvous with Mike, who was given free rein as a cowboy trustee.
Such extraordinary advantages ended on the day in 1987 he learned his chance for freedom had been squashed by a systemwide change in the parole rules that would also severely cut back his trustee privileges.
Furious and frustrated, he galloped his horse to the house of an assistant warden, helped himself to clothes, keys, a gun and a walkie-talkie, and drove away in the officer’s Corvette. He soon ran out of gas and traded the gun for fuel, after removing the bullets, at a filling station.
The news of an “armed and dangerous” triple murderer on the loose, according to police, was reported to the nation by Dan Rather on CBS. After reaching the shabby home of his dying father, with whom he had once shared a prison, in different cells, Mike quietly surrendered.
The episode solidified his reputation among officers of the law as a man who deserved no mercy.
For Becky, the consequences of his escape were “catastrophic.”
As she would write years later, “The Escambia County authorities did not just throw the book at him; they threw the whole law library. For the nonviolent flight lasting less than two days, he was sentenced to: 1) a life sentence without parole for breaking into the home, a charge inflated to a ‘first-degree’ burglary because Michael took the gun, although it was clearly ‘loot’ and never intended to be used as a weapon; 2) a second life sentence for the theft of the officer’s car; and 3) 10 years for the escape. He had fled in such a way as to do no harm to any person, and to leave a trail so that no suspicion of abetting would be lodged against me. And for this he was sentenced to die in prison.”
Giving up was never considered. Vowing to find a legal way to live together in freedom, Mike and Becky took on the daunting mission of attacking his three murder convictions. During the next decade she did detective work and deep research on the outside while he dug his way through a library of law books on the inside. Mobile attorneys as skilled as Barry Johnson and James Curenton took their appeals to courts at all state levels.
But state prosecutors never would admit that Pardue, for all the sins committed as a troubled teenager and as an escapee, was actually blameless of any major crime or act of violence. There is no truthfully recorded instance of his doing serious harm to anyone at any time in his life.
They fought the Pardues every step of the way. They said the couple’s courtroom victories were due to “technicalities” and claims of constitutional violations. As happens all too often in high-profile miscarriages of justice in all states, protecting the system’s reputation became the highest priority. It was necessary to dismiss the thought that the actual shotgun killer or killers had been given a free pass.
The Pardues rode a roller coaster of emotions when the response of the state to the erasing of the guilty verdict of Mike’s original trial was to call for a new trial in 1995. Knowing juries are powerfully influenced by a confession, even if coerced and false, prosecutors introduced a long-buried and supremely misleading partial tape recording of the lengthy interrogation. Mike was found guilty again.
The result seemed devastating — until a higher court, appalled by the state’s mischief and misconduct, negated the verdict.
Meanwhile, a wave of publicity about Mike’s predicament reached far beyond Alabama.
Attention was paid in September 1995 when Becky Pardue and Barry Johnson were invited to speak at a “Convicting the Innocent” forum in Hartford, Connecticut. This was the first-ever national conference of experts on the phenomenon of false confessions. Becky would later mount an expensive “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH” billboard on a highway leading to Montgomery to wake up state officials.
A brilliant series of investigative reports by Mike Wilson in the Mobile Press-Register came close to validating Pardue’s innocence. A sympathetic front-page article in The New York Times by Alabama writer Rick Bragg described Mike as “a neutral-looking man … his hair going gray,” who “speaks softly and moves carefully, the kind of man who can walk down a street without making dogs bark.”
Letters of protest from as far away as France, Germany and India rained down on Alabama’s governor, attorney general and other officials. They asked how the state could possibly explain the absurdity that Pardue, no longer convicted of any major crime, must remain forever behind prison bars just for fleeing three times from the institutions where he did not belong in the first place.
The embarrassment of it all became too much. A deal was struck.
On Feb. 15, 2001, Pardue was quietly given his liberty in a back room of a rural courthouse as the state plucked its last ounce of flesh: his agreement to accept some months of probation and not inform the media of his liberty.
As an independent journalist with a history of investigating miscarriages of justice, I was there when Becky stood ready to embrace Mike and hand over the civilian clothing she had bought years ago. Instead, chaos struck as a gang of prison officers, claiming they needed to do “further processing,” swooped in. They put Mike in handcuffs. They drove him away from the courthouse at high speed. He would soon be placed in a cell on death row.
Becky and the Pardue lawyers gave chase. My own speedometer hit 90 before we all reached the Holman prison. The media appeared. The commotion we caused led to a warning of imminent arrest if we did not get off the prison grounds. Hours later, Mike was released a second time — but only after frantic phoned appeals to higher-ups in Montgomery to end the farce.
Becky alone was allowed to drive in to pick up the inmate. No lawyers, no press. So at dusk the couple drove to the same Best Western where they had been special customers. Waiting to help them celebrate were family, friends, advocates and reporters. The cheering went on into the night.
* * *
But, you may ask, what came next? What about their years of living together in freedom, fated to be no more than 18?
“Ecstasy” is defined in the dictionary as “an overwhelming feeling of great happiness or joyful excitement.” At the beginning and quite often to the end, Mike and Becky knew ecstasy in its purest form, time after time after time. Yet what became equally overwhelming were the calamities that struck them again and again and again.
In the late hours of freedom day, they arrived at Becky’s home on Riverside Drive, not far from Dauphin Island.
“A TV crew and van were there,” she remembers. “Fine. We hugged and kissed for the media and went inside. I immediately gave Mike two items — things he had not owned since 1973: a wallet filled with cash and a set of house and car keys. He was thrilled.”
She goes on: “Our living room was filled with helium balloons, in the air and on the floor. We played with them for weeks. Sitting on a futon, we fed each other our first free meal. But it was odd, strange and scary because we expected the police to come knocking on our door at any moment. We would carry this fear around for months.
“We listened to the news coverage of our release. Every station but one, Channel 15, so very decent, played the worst portions of the ‘confession’ tape — which the courts had ruled illegal. The district attorney’s office, as we later learned, had hand-delivered the tape to them to smear Mike’s name and reputation.”
The couple was well aware a cloud of suspicion would sit over their heads forever. Most people — unaware that false confessions account for a third of all wrongful convictions — tell themselves that “nobody could ever get me to admit to a crime I didn’t commit.”
There is little understanding that the psychological pressures and legal lies of police at work in an inquisition hothouse can be even more effective than the physical brutality of the once commonplace “third degree.”
Nonetheless, Mike and Becky, like school kids in the first days of summer vacation, rejoiced, reveled and basked in the new world now open to the ex-con.
“At Walmart,” she says, “Mike was shocked at the enormity of it all,” especially seeing real eggs and endless varieties of cheese and meats. “We spent over $300, which blew him away. Then he was startled that I got cash back from the credit card. He could not understand how or why we could buy so many groceries and get money back for them!”
Once the restrictions of Mike’s probation fell away, the two began honeymoon travels that took them to beaches and mountains and dreamlands across the nation. For a lark closer to home, they sometimes returned to their favorite room at the Best Western to relive the glory times of the 1980s. They checked in as Mr. & Mrs. Freeman.
Rehearsals and concerts of the Mobile Pops band became a big part of their lives. Becky, a clarinet player who had attended the University of Texas on a music scholarship, had been a founder of the band three decades earlier.
They wrote a book like no other: “FREEING THE INNOCENT. How We Did It. A Handbook for the Wrongfully Convicted.” The work offered invaluable advice for convicts in all states, guilty or innocent, on how to survive behind bars and how to challenge the justice system’s errors and misdeeds. Mike sternly advised against escapes, saying the consequences can be horrendous.
With attorney Jim Curenton, Mike filed a salvo of civil suits for compensation aimed at the long list of state officials, politicians and lawmen who had done him wrong. The task over a dozen years was mighty and mostly futile because, in Becky’s blunt words, “Police and prosecutors have absolute immunity; they can do anything they please and almost always there is no recourse against it.”
Even so, the state’s attorneys were obliged to resist the suits all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Left standing as precedent was the federal appellate court’s condemnation of the harsh and illegal methods used to force false admissions from the 17-year-old. The battle ended when the Pardues won a whopping settlement with the city of Saraland, the exact amount not to be disclosed under the agreement.
Though they were happiest when left alone, Mike and Becky did their best to handle visitors drawn to Mobile because of their celebrity. Among them were journalists, a writer who would later do a book on the case in French and movie producers seeking rights to their life story. David Bushell, best known for “Sling Blade” in 1996 (starring Billy Bob Thornton), won the competition for the rights, but the film has been stalled because of financing.
A couple from Germany, big supporters who had written letters and signed petitions, made a trip across the ocean just to meet the Pardues. Arriving on Sept. 11, 2001, they were “fairly disappointed,” Becky recalls, when their tour of Bellingrath Gardens and other wonders of greater Mobile had to be abandoned because Mike and Becky were glued to TV for its images of the collapsing Twin Towers.
A less demanding family wrote from India to say they had named their first daughter Becky so that she, too, could grow up to be strong, smart and committed to good works.
These good times were intermingled with sad and terrible events.
Mike’s younger siblings, both alcohol addicted, died. Becky’s mother, Florence Pouyadou, a gracious lady who had become Mike’s much-adored second mother, died in his arms.
Hurricane Katrina struck with Category 5 force in August 2005 while Mike and Becky were far from shore on a boat trip. Though they made it back to shore safely, they had to cope with the utter destruction of Florence’s home on the bay. She had left it to Becky; the couple had only recently moved in, and now had to deal with the massive task of reconstruction.
On the plus side, the post-Katrina cleanup in New Orleans opened the door to a full display of Michael Pardue’s mechanical and management abilities. He was soon a high earner at a construction company as he hired crews, operated heavy equipment and handled the logistics of the restoration of a destroyed loading facility where giant Corona Beer ships arrive in the U.S. from Mexico. He deployed more than a dozen 18-wheelers from his prior employer to haul large debris to dumping sites outside New Orleans.
Life was good for the Pardues until Mike was directed to oversee construction of a huge loading dock in Coatzacoalcos, Mexico. He sent most of his salary to Becky, who remained in Alabama, living in a FEMA trailer, to salvage what was left in their blown-down home and supervise its restoration.
Being by himself in a country where drinking is part of the culture proved disastrous. His seemingly innate alcoholism, kept at bay during his decades of confinement, now kicked in big time. His increasingly heavy drinking and bouts of depression seemed caused by post-traumatic stress disorder — combining the trauma both of his abusive childhood and the long imprisonment, when he only barely survived everyday violence while witnessing rape, crippling assaults and assassinations.
Now often out of control, fired from his job, blacking out and suicidal, Mike ended up in a series of expensive rehabilitation centers that drained the Pardue resources. Becky remembers the time in the winter of 2010 when she had to rush to rehab in northern Alabama “because Mike was dying. I truly believe he was. His eyes were bulging, he was blood-red in the face and he was sweating profusely.”
He did not die but did hit bottom numerous times in the years ahead. On one occasion, when he was home, he found a pistol in a drawer and fired a shot in a wall. Arrested for domestic violence, he was bailed out by Becky. Even though the charge was dismissed, state officials pounced. Mike was driven off to Brewton on the state’s claim that he had violated his probation.
It was a phony claim — his probation had ended long before — but it would be endorsed by a judge who sent him back to prison. Pardue’s situation was unique. Never before had the lead author of a how-to book on surviving behind bars been obliged, as a senior citizen in a mostly younger population of criminals, to follow his own advice.
A long, expensive and exhausting campaign in the courts to erase the mistake ended with Mike’s release after two-and-a-half years. Alabama justice did not apologize for bringing his total unjust time in confinement to 30 years.
But once released, Mike was still stalked by his seemingly unstoppable need to drink. Time after time, Becky had to resort to tough love — shape up or ship out! — before her heart would break and she would let him return from his latest bout with his addiction demons.
Strangely, his salvation began when he was so out-of-his-mind drunk and penniless that he stole items of no great value from a supposedly unoccupied house. He apologized when the homeowner appeared. He revealed his name. After his arrest, a district attorney asked a judge to impose a 99-year sentence. The judge commented, “Haven’t you done enough to this man?”
Mike was dispatched to the Center of Hope rehab center in Anniston. At first, he hated his year of being held in a heavily religious atmosphere, but the Bible studies clicked in. The once model prisoner, finding Jesus, now aimed at being a model ex-alcoholic. Once home again, his friends from AA meetings helped him as he helped other unfortunates.
His blessed successful months of freedom from addictions were interesting, he told me, because, “stopping smoking has been harder than stopping drinking.” Being happy again, he said and she said, was just great. Until …
Chest pains hit Mike last month, on Feb. 8. Stents were inserted. Afterward, Becky says, “He felt wonderful. We celebrated his birthday in grand style on the 12th. We celebrated Valentine’s Day on the 14th with cards, kisses and dancing in our living room. We held each other as we cried that night because it was the anniversary of Ma’s death. The next day, when he went fishing, I walked out on the back deck and waved him farewell. He flashed his lights as he always did, and waved. He drove away. I never saw him again.”
Her life shattered but her spirit braced for an unimaginable future, Lebecca Pardue remembers Michael Pardue as “a man of good humor, a kind man, a gentle man, a wonderful human being who suffered the worst but deserved the best.”
Donald S. Connery, a former foreign correspondent who reported the 1962 Cuban missile crisis from Moscow for Time, Life and NBC, is an investigator of miscarriages of justice. His books include “Guilty Until Proven Innocent” and “Convicting the Innocent.” His latest book-in-progress is on the Michael and Becky Pardue story.
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