Miss. AG: Pardoned killer found in Wyoming

Published 2:24 pm Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A convicted killer pardoned by former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was in Wyoming with his fiancee and tried to flee when he was found Sunday by investigators who served him with a court summons, authorities said Monday.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said Joseph Ozment tried to flee when investigators tracked him to a hotel in Laramie, Wyo. There wasn’t a warrant for Ozment’s arrest, but the summons will require him to show up for court hearings and check in every 24 hours with the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

Hood wants to invalidate dozens of the 198 pardons that Barbour handed out before his term ended Jan. 10. A Hinds County, Miss., judge scheduled a hearing on the matter for Friday. However, an attorney representing four former prisoners filed a motion Monday that seeks to block the judge from issuing a ruling that could send them back to prison.

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Hood said Ozment tried to flee the hotel in a Mercedes and the vehicle bumped one of the investigators. Ozment returned later on foot and was served with court papers. Hood said his investigator was standing behind the car when the vehicle hit him and he decided not to press charges.

Ozment and four other inmates who were pardoned, including three other convicted killers, had worked as inmate trusties at the Governor’s Mansion. A judge had ordered them to check in after Hood requested a temporary restraining order. Ozment missed a court hearing last week, but the judge said she could not issue an arrest warrant because he hadn’t been served a summons.

During a news conference in his office, Hood handed out copies of a wedding announcement for Ozment and his fiancee, LaChina Tillman, who Hood described as an engineer for a national defense contractor. Hood said the pictures that accompanied the announcement were taken at the Governor’s Mansion. He said the woman visited Ozment at the mansion 15 times.

“It was very unusual circumstances, for murderers, as to the freedoms they had” at the Governor’s Mansion, Hood said.

As part of a tradition that went back decades, the most trusted prisoners in Mississippi were given jobs at the Governor’s Mansion. Governors usually gave them some type of early release when their terms ended.

According to material provided by Hood, Ozment and his fiancee had been planning a sunset, beach wedding in the Florida Panhandle in March.  A subsequent notice said the couple would have a small, private wedding at an undisclosed location due “to personal circumstances.”

Hood, a Democrat, said he had a hard time finding Ozment and announced last week that his office was willing to pay confidential informants for information. Hood said the fact that there was no warrant for Ozment’s arrest made it harder to find him because friends and relatives were not legally compelled to cooperate and couldn’t face charges for harboring him.

“A good citizen of Laramie, Wyo., gave us a good tip,” Hood said. The attorney general said he hasn’t decided how much to pay the tipster.

Hood is challenging the legality of dozens of Barbour’s pardons. Hood said about 170 people who got them did not meet the Mississippi Constitution’s requirement that a notice be published in a local newspaper for 30 days. Ten of the pardons went to people who were incarcerated.

An attorney for four of the former trusties filed a motion Monday asking the Mississippi Supreme Court to issue a stay that would prevent the Hinds County Circuit Court from holding Friday’s hearing or ordering the men back to prison. The ruling could affect five other people who are being held in prison because of Hood’s restraining order.

Most of the people whom Barbour pardoned had already served their sentences and had been out of prison for years. Some were convicted of drug charges or other comparatively minor crimes as far back as the 1960s and 1970s.

Some published notices for four weeks in weekly newspapers. Hood said four weeks is only 28 days, not the 30 days specified in the constitution, and that they should have published for five weeks. Others were published in daily newspapers but the ads didn’t run for a full 30 days before the pardon was signed. Hood has said about two dozen people published the proper notice.

Barbour, a Republican 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 said Thursday that the issue has nothing to do with politics and that it’s a matter of the law.

Ozment was sentenced to life in prison in 1994 for the slaying of Ricky Montgomery during a robbery at a store in Desoto County.