One of the first inmates to benefit from the Obama administration’s new, less stringent guidelines on the early release of federal prisoners is the 87-year-old father of one of four African American girls killed in the infamous 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala.
U.S. District Judge Lynwood Smith of Birmingham signed an order Thursday releasing Christopher McNair, a former county commissioner in the state who has served just over half of a five-year sentence for accepting $140,000 in bribes while in office.
The order came in response to a request from Justice Department lawyers earlier in the day seeking McNair’s release on medical grounds. By evening, McNair had been released from a federal prison hospital in Minnesota, and his attorney was arranging to fly him to Alabama.
The carefully choreographed legal maneuvers came after a quiet, years-long campaign by prominent African Americans and civil rights leaders in support of clemency for McNair. On May 24, his wife made a personal plea to President Obama at an Oval Office signing ceremony for legislation posthumously awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the four girls, according to others present at the event. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was also at the White House ceremony. He was deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration, when the federal investigation into the Birmingham church bombing was reopened.
A spokesman for the department said the recommendation to commute McNair’s sentence was made by the federal Bureau of Prisons and “based solely” on new federal rules aimed at making it easier for prisoners in declining health to seek early release. More than 30 inmates have applied for similar sentence reductions since some guidelines were first eased in April, and McNair is the seventh to be ordered released since June, according to the department.
Justice officials said that McNair has not been treated differently than other inmates and that the timing of a release during a week commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington was a coincidence.
Officials acknowledged Holder’s interest in McNair’s situation and said he received at least two updates on the review this summer. After Bureau of Prisons officials concluded a few weeks ago that McNair should be released, the attorney general indicated that he agreed with that decision, one official said.
White House officials said Obama took no steps to influence the review after the conversation with McNair’s wife. She was told by White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett that the case would be evaluated through normal Justice Department channels, officials said.
The bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was carried out just weeks after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I Have a Dream” speech. Eleven-year-old Denise McNair and three 14-year-olds were killed, helping to galvanize national support for the civil rights movement.
McNair — a photographer who captured images of King and other black leaders at the height of Birmingham’s racial turmoil — emerged as an influential local civil rights figure, becoming one of the first African American candidates elected to the Alabama Legislature in modern times. He eventually served as a county commissioner from the 1980s to 2001. During his time in office, the federal investigation into the 1963 bombing was reopened, leading to convictions and imprisonment of two members of the Ku Klux Klan involved in the killings.
McNair’s fall from grace came after a conviction in 2006 for accepting $140,000 in bribes in a scandal that ensnared 20 other local officials related to contracts for a massive sewer construction project. After appealing the conviction, he entered a federal medical prison in Rochester, Minn., in 2011.
Supporters said that McNair’s contributions to civil rights and his personal loss in 1963 should count for something in considering his situation.
“Rather than being a bitter, old man and leaving Alabama, which he could have done, what he and his wife did was stay here and try to make this place a little better,” said former U.S. attorney Doug Jones, who prosecuted the two Klansmen after the bombing case was reopened and later became McNair’s defense attorney.
“I would just appeal to people’s sense of compassion,” Lisa McNair, one of two other daughters in the family, said before his release. “He’s an elderly man. He made a mistake, and he paid for it in more ways than people really know.”
Lisa McNair attended the White House ceremony in May and said in an interview that her mother, Thelma “Maxine” Pippen McNair, requested a moment with the president to ask Obama whether he could help her husband.
“He was not totally familiar with the situation, but he was gracious enough to respect her and say that he would look into it,” Lisa McNair said. “It was sweet of him to do that.”
The release is likely to please critics who have accused the administration of doing little to address mass incarceration, especially of African Americans, despite campaigning on promises to do so. In 2011, the White House denied a request for clemency from McNair, and it has taken no action on a second clemency request filed this year.
During an Aug. 12 speech to the American Bar Association, Holder said the Justice Department was relaxing standards for granting “compassionate release” to some sick and elderly federal prisoners who had served a substantial portion of their sentence and posed no threat of violence.
That move followed initial changes that were made to the compassionate-release program after a report by the Justice Department’s inspector general criticized the Bureau of Prisons for having unclear and inconsistent standards for evaluating prisoners’ eligibility for release.
Those rule changes opened the door for McNair’s release, Justice officials said.