JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A convicted murderer who left Mississippi after being pardoned by former Gov. Haley Barbour seems poised to fight attempts to make him return from Wyoming.
Joseph Ozment's attorney, Robert Moxley, told The Associated Press on Thursday that he and another lawyer will defend Ozment's freedom if he decides to try to stay in Wyoming. Ozment is not a fugitive and there's no warrant for his arrest, but there's a legal challenge to his pardon pending before the Mississippi Supreme Court. A hearing is scheduled for next week.
Ozment worked as a trusty at the Governor's Mansion before he was pardoned last month in the final days of Barbour's second term. He had dropped out of sight by the time state Attorney General Jim Hood persuaded a judge to order Ozment and four others to check in daily with corrections officials and attend hearings.
There was nothing to make Ozment comply with the order because he had not been served with a summons. And even though Hood used the term "manhunt" to describe the search for Ozment, the only thing his investigators could do when they found him was to serve a summons to appear for hearings in a civil lawsuit. Ozment was served with the papers Sunday in Laramie, Wyo.
"We are advising him as to all of his options and whatever he decides to do we support his decision," said Moxley, an attorney from Cheyenne, Wyo. "We stand ready to defend this young man's freedom come hell or high water."
Ozment was sentenced to life in prison in 1994 for killing Ricky Montgomery during a robbery at a store in Desoto County. Moxley said he's been an exemplary prisoner. He earned four college degrees and worked his way up to the coveted position at the Governor's Mansion. Mississippi governors for decades have traditionally given some kind of early release to those trusties, who have usually been murderers.
Hood is challenging the pardons based on the legal argument that many of the 198 people who Barbour pardoned didn't properly publish notices for 30 days in newspapers where the crimes took place. Most of those pardoned had been already out of prison for years, some since the 1960s and 1970s. Many of them had been convicted of relatively minor crimes and have never been in trouble again.
Ten people who received pardons were still incarcerated at the time. Ozment and four other Governor's Mansion trusties were pardoned and released. But five other inmates are being held in jail on a temporary restraining order issued by Hinds County, Miss., Circuit Judge Tomie Green. Green had scheduled a hearing on the matter for Friday, but the Supreme Court stepped in and took over the case late Wednesday.
Moxley said he's been disappointed by Hood's rhetoric, including suggestions to reporters that Ozment has a white supremacist tattoo. Moxley pointed out that Ozment is engaged to a black woman who he met through a friend he made in prison.
"He feels like labeling him as a member of a white supremacist group was irresponsible and reckless. It's one thing to raise a legal challenge to the legitimacy of his pardon but quite another to socially sabotage his life and his future. He is not a member of a white supremacist group. He's a Christian young man." Moxley said. "It's a little bit disappointing ... Somebody who is supposedly a professional prosecutor ought to know that some of these statements to the press have a tendency to endanger Mr. Ozment."
Barbour, who considered running for president in 2012 before backing out, has accused Hood of partisan politics. Hood is the only Democrat in statewide office. Hood has said the issue has nothing to do with politics and that's it's a matter of the law.