Pardons sought for defendants in ’69 robbery case

Gov. Mark Parkinson has issued one pardon so far in his term, but lawyers from the Kansas University Project for Innocence are hoping to triple that number.

The Project for Innocence, which worked last year to secure a pardon for former Topeka man, Jerry Hunt, filed clemency petitions last month for two other men involved in Hunt’s case.

The men, John Manning and Frederick Johnson, were convicted along with Hunt in a Sedgwick District Court for robbery in 1969.

All three fled the country while awaiting sentencing.

The convictions stemmed from an incident in Wichita, where eight black men, who later would be known as the “Wichita 8,” met with employees of the newly formed Joint Action in Community Service, or JACS.

Two representatives from JACS claimed the group physically intimidated them into paying wages for the time and travel to the meeting. The group members contend the day’s wages were part of the agreement. In the end, all eight were convicted by an all-white jury on various robbery charges at trial.

Former Lawrence man Leonard Harrison, who ran the Ballard Center at the time, was among those convicted. Harrison received a pardon on his conviction from Gov. Joan Finney in 1993.

Former Kansas Attorney General Robert Stephan was the presiding judge at the men’s trial, and described the racial atmosphere in Wichita at the time as “very polarized.” Stephan said it was the most racially contentious trial he had ever worked on, and he has since written letters of support for Hunt, Manning and Johnson’s pardons.

The clemency petitions highlight the international community work both men have done, as well as the struggles they faced, after their convictions.

“They are extremely incredible men,” said Project for Innocence attorney Beth Cateforis. “It’s an amazing story.”

Both Manning and Johnson contacted the Project for Innocence following a November Journal-World article about Hunt.

Johnson, originally from Kansas City, Kan., fled to Africa and changed his last name to Umoja. He’s spent the past 40 years working for nonprofit organizations, including a United States embassy-sponsored school in Liberia. Cateforis said he would like to return to the U.S. to see his family.

Manning, an Oklahoma native, spent time in Tanzania also working for nonprofit groups, but returned to the U.S. in 1984. Manning, who now lives in Texas, was arrested when he returned and served several months in a Kansas jail on the robbery conviction. Manning has since been fired from jobs when his record was discovered.

The Journal-World was unable to contact either Johnson or Manning for comment.

Cateforis said she’s confident the governor will grant pardons for both men.

The trial “was based on racism,” she said. “Their records should be clear.”