THE BACK PAGE Dead Wrong If I had you Gov’nor Neff Like you got me, I’d wake up in the mornin’ and I’d set you free, Wake up in the mornin’ and I’d set you free Austin, March 10 overnor Pat Neff’s 1924 pardon f Huddie Ledbetter was no doubt well-intended. But it sent the wrong message to the school children of Texas. It sent the wrong message to criminals in Texas. And it sent the wrong message to victims of crime in Texas,” Governor George Bush said at a Capitol press conference today. “We want all Texans to know that if you do the crime, you will do the time in this life or hereafter.” The Governor said his unprecedented action will “correct an error made by the man who held this office seven decades ago” and “underscore our commitment to justice for victims and their families.” Bush overturned Governor Neff’s pardon of Ledbetter, better known as “Leadbelly,” the African-American blues/folk singer first recorded by Texas musicologist Alan Lomax. In a prepared statement, the Governor said, “As I noted last month in rejecting clemency for condemned murderer Karla Faye Tucker, once a jury has spoken, elected officials cannot presume on decisions that must be made by a Higher Power. Governor Neff acted outside his God-given authority, and Ledbetter is still wanted by the state of Texas dead or alive.” The Governor’s spokesperson, Karen Hughes, said the Governor had been considering revoking the pardon since February 26, when he attended a staged reenactment of Governor Neff’s signing of the legislation that created the state park system. “Huddie Ledbetter was a violent criminal, convicted of assault with intent to murder under an alias in Bowie County,” Hughes said. “He had previously served time in Louisiana, and he wrote a song glorifying life in prison and mocking the thensheriff of Harris County. The governor believes Neff’s pardon of such a hardened criminal set a bad example.” Leadbelly wrote “The Midnight Special” while serving a thirty-five year sentence in Sugar Land. The song refers to the midnight train on the Sugar Land Spur route, and the prisoners’ belief that if the train’s light swept across a convict in his cell, that prisoner would be freed. “The irony is,” Alan Lomax wrote, “that the light could never reach the prison walls.” Some historians argue that despite the Governor’s post-mortem response, the song in fact sends a strong anti-crime message: If you ever go to Houston, Boy you better walk right You better not gamble You better not fight, Sheriff Taylor will arres’ you, His boys will drag you down, And before you know it, You’ll be jailhouse bound. In 1924, after hearing Leadbelly sing an improvised, personal plea for mercy, Neff granted him a full pardon and restored his rights as a citizen. Leadbelly had served six years and eight months of his sentence. He died in New York in 1949. Democratic political consultant George Shipley suggested that while it is always an astute political posture to be tough on crime, in revoking the pardon of a dead man Bush may have moved just a bit too far to the right. Shipley speculated that Bush was encouraged to make the move by Karl Rove, Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter an Austin Republican political consultant. “The Governor also may have felt he was being outflanked by [Republican Attorney General candidate] Barry Williamson, who is flying around the state denouncing criminals and drug dealers. The state is running short of high-profile criminals to jail, so unpardoning dead ones certainly ups the ante. The Democrats may have to find a way to clined to be interviewed for this story. State representative Ron Wilson, who once played bass for legendary Houston bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins, noted that when Leadbelly shot Will Stafford, he did so with a concealed weapon. “Because of the right-to-carry law I sponsored, that would not be an illegal act today,” Wilson said. He promised to speak to the Governor in defense of the dead convict’s Second Amendment rights. Attorney General Dan Morales rejected the contention that the Governor’s unpardon might rest on uncertain legal grounds. “Dead people have no ‘special rights’ under our constitution,” Morales said. “The Governor’ s retroactive unclemency may open up a whole new field of jurisprudence. Indeed, it appears admirably presidential.”
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