Samuel Jarvis “Jerry” Hunt spent 40 years running from a possible prison sentence for a 1969 Sedgwick County conviction for third-degree robbery.
In his first gubernatorial pardon, Gov. Mark Parkinson freed Hunt from his running.
“I do hereby pardon Samuel Jarvis Hunt for the aforesaid crime of One Count of Third Degree Robbery,” Parkinson proclaimed on July 30.
For some observers, Hunt’s pardon represents a righting of a wrong that highlighted the racial tension in Kansas, and in the country, in the 1960s.
Hunt, along with seven other black defendants from Kansas known as the “Wichita 8,” was convicted of robbery by an all-white jury.
The Wichita 8 traveled from various parts of Kansas to a hotel in Wichita on Oct. 17, 1968, to meet with two representatives from the newly formed Joint Action in Community Service, or JACS. The group members were there to discuss plans to help JACS recruit youths into the Job Corps across Kansas. Among the Wichita 8 was Leonard Harrison, who at the time was the director of the Ballard Center in Lawrence.
The day’s events would change the course of all their lives, causing Hunt and several others to flee to Africa.
The group met with David Gutierrez, the regional director from JACS, and his assistant, William Howard, at the hotel to discuss plans for the program. The meeting didn’t go well and negotiations broke off following disagreements between the Wichita 8 and Gutierrez. While there was no physical assault, Gutierrez said that the group intimidated him into writing checks to compensate the members for the day’s wages. The group members contend the day’s wages were part of the agreement, but Gutierrez’s argument that the wages were forcefully taken led to the charges, and subsequent robbery convictions, against the members of the Wichita 8.
Hunt received a check for wages and expenses of $230.
Robert Stephan, former Kansas attorney general and the presiding judge in the case, describes the atmosphere at the trial as “very polarized.”
The eight defendants were charged with various crimes, including kidnapping and robbery.
“It would be ridiculous to say race wasn’t a factor,” said Stephan, calling the trial the most racially contentious one he had ever seen.
Frances Horowitz, a former Lawrence resident, said her husband, who was involved with the ACLU at the time, attended the trial daily. Horowitz said she and many others in the Lawrence community supported the defendants.
“It was an outrage,” she said. “It was a circus.”
The prosecution brought in police witnesses from Philadelphia to testify about “Black Power.” The presence of the Black Panthers, who supported the defendants during the trial, reinforced the idea that the defendants were something other than peaceful activists, said Stephan.
“They weren’t black militants,” Stephan said. “I thought basically every one of these defendants were decent people. But if not for this dumb event they would have continued to be decent citizens.”
Hunt, after a stint in the Air Force, was attending Washburn University pursuing a law degree while working for civil rights for various organizations in Topeka. The other members were likewise involved in peaceful community organizing before their convictions.
After the seven-week trial, all eight were convicted on robbery charges, and faced prison sentences ranging up to 21 years.
Following the conviction, Hunt and three others skipped bond and fled the country.
Stephan said he sentenced the remaining four, who surrendered to authorities, to probation following a Kansas Supreme Court ruling affirming the convictions.
“I thought in many ways they were a victim of the system,” said Stephan, explaining his decision to impose probation. It’s a decision he said he wished Hunt, and the others who fled, would have known about.
“Even if they had come back, I don’t think I’d have sent them to prison,” said Stephan, who wrote letters in support of Hunt’s pardon.
Despite his advocacy for the pardon, Stephan said he believed the group was guilty of coercing money from Gutierrez.
“They took the law into their own hands,” he said. “They were wrong, but I understood. … It was a test of civil rights, too.”
Hunt fled to Tanzania, where he found success as a businessman, using the skills he learned in the Air Force to start a flight school, according to his clemency petition.
Meanwhile, Harrison, who had also fled to Tanzania, contacted Horowitz, who now lives in New York, and asked for her assistance in obtaining a pardon. Horowitz called the Kansas University School of Law, which took up Harrison’s case and successfully obtained a pardon from Gov. Joan Finney in 1993.
After years in Africa, Hunt moved back to the United States with his four children in the late 1990s, still facing the possibility of serving time for the robbery conviction.
Hunt began rebuilding his life in the United States and also approached Horowitz seeking assistance with a pardon. KU’s Paul E. Wilson Defender Project took on Hunt’s case and worked for five years to secure the pardon.
“If there ever was a worthy clemency, this was it,” said Jean Phillips, the Defender Project director. “It wasn’t about these guys. It was about society at the time.”
The Journal-World was unsuccessful in reaching Hunt for comment on the case.
Phillips said the pardon provides some relief for Hunt and his family after the years in Africa and the disruption of his life.
“Now he can do things with his life,” she said. “It reaffirms my faith that we’re willing to do the right thing.”