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November 19, 2018

How Professor Imwinkelried and I 'reversed' 28 50-year-old convictions last week

By Gabriel J. Chin

Often, the most essential part of lawyering is not brilliant legal analysis, factual investigation, or even winning the case.  Instead, the outcome turns on mundane details such as, say, collecting a judgment, or getting your client out on bail. That lesson was vividly driven home for me last week when I was reading Knight v. State, 161 So.2d 521 (Miss. 1964), a unanimous affirmance by the Mississippi Supreme Court of Freedom Rider Edythe Pauline Knight’s conviction for disturbing the peace after she had been ordered out of the “whites only” section of the Jackson, Mississippi bus terminal.  Based on its clean history on Westlaw, I’ve cited the decision a number of times in my scholarship, in part because of the court’s finding that for many, belief in segregation is “as deep or deeper than religion itself.” But I chanced to browse some other decisions citing the case, and noticed that Justice Douglas in his dissent in City of Greenwood, Mississippi v. Peacock, 384 U.S. 808 (1966), said that Knight had been reversed in Thomas v. Mississippi, 380 U.S. 524 (1965). 

The opinion in Thomas, a per curiam reversal, does not itself mention Knight; the text claims to reverse only Thomas’s case.  But Mabie Law Library reference librarians Peg Durkin and Kristin Brandt obtained the Supreme Court papers in Thomas and, lo and behold, the certiorari petition in Thomas was filed on behalf of Thomas, Knight and 27 other individuals, each convicted in separate cases. 28 cases shown as good law had actually been reversed, but that fact slipped through the cracks of the legal system.

I raised this issue with Professor Ed Inwinkelried, who is technically retired but seems to come to the office every day. As the author of many books and treatises, I suspected he would have contacts with Westlaw. Indeed he did, and when he brought it to the attention of the right editor, Westlaw immediately updated the status of all of the cases. Over fifty years after the fact, Knight and 27 companion cases are now shown as reversed by Thomas, including the conviction of Congress of Racial Equality founder James L. Farmer, who would later receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Of course, these 28 individuals knew their convictions had been reversed in 1965, and now the historical record has been corrected. But there are still consequences. Not just scholars, but also courts and other authorities treated these decisions as valid. As high court decisions, they were influential, and have been cited by other Mississippi courts and administrative authorities, such as attorney general opinions. It would be very difficult to determine the impact of these cases on the development of the law, but is nearly certain that they would not have been cited if it had been clear that they had been reversed.