A convicted murderer who left Mississippi after being pardoned by former Gov. Haley Barbour seems poised to fight attempts to force him to return from Wyoming.
Joseph Ozment's attorney, Robert Moxley, told The Associated Press on Thursday that he will defend Ozment's freedom if he decides to try to stay in Wyoming. The 40-year-old is not a fugitive and no warrant has been issued for his arrest.
However, a legal challenge to the pardons is headed for the Mississippi Supreme Court next week. It's far from clear what might happen to those who were freed from prison by the pardons, such as Ozment.
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.
Initially there was no vehicle to force Ozment comply with the judge's order because, as a civil matter and not criminal, he would first have to be served with a summons.
Though Hood used the term "manhunt" to describe the search for Ozment, all his investigators could do when they found him was to serve a summons to appear for hearings in Hood's 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."
During a news conference Thursday in his office, Hood said he'll seek a contempt order if Ozment misses a court hearing, but he wouldn't say if there's anything he can do to enforce it in Wyoming. But if the pardons are voided, Hood said, Ozment "will be an escapee and we'll arrest him as soon as we can lay hands on him."
Hood said that if Ozment has been reformed and is a good person, then he'll show up to court.
"We'll see what kind of man he is," Hood said.
Matt Steffey, a constitutional law professor at Mississippi College, said there is little authorities can do to force Ozment to return at this point. Even if he missed a court hearing and was held in contempt, authorities' ability to enforce a Mississippi contempt citation would be "extremely limited" in another state. However, if he was held in contempt and returned to Mississippi he could be arrested.
"I know of no precedent or authority to remove someone against their will on the basis of a contempt citation from another state," Steffey said. "If his pardon is ultimately invalidated, then there are avenues to seek extradition."
Ozment was sentenced to life in prison in 1994 for killing Ricky Montgomery during a robbery at a store in Desoto County, a northern Mississippi county that's a bedroom community south of Memphis, Tenn.
Moxley called Ozment an exemplary prisoner who earned four college degrees and worked his way up to the coveted trusty position at the Governor's Mansion. Mississippi governors for decades have traditionally given some kind of early release to those trusties. Many, like Ozment, are convicted killers.
Hood is challenging the pardons based on the argument that many of the 198 people who Barbour pardoned didn't properly publish notices for 30 days in newspapers based in communities where their crimes took place. Most of those pardoned had been out of prison for years, some since the 1960s and 1970s. Many were convicted of relatively minor crimes and have not been repeat offenders.
Ten people who received pardons were still in jail 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 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."
Hood said he had no comment on that.
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. He insisted again Thursday that the issue has nothing to do with politics and took issue that the allegation has been repeated in the media. He said it's a matter of constitutional law.