Trial lawyer Corey Gordon knew that helping to secure Minnesota’s first posthumous pardon would do nothing for the beneficiary, Max Mason, an African American man whose wrongful conviction of raping a white woman followed the 1920 Duluth lynchings of three African American men in the same case.
What motivated Gordon to help seek Mason’s pardon — and write a recent article about it for the University of St. Thomas Law Journal — is to redress past racial injustices and make the case for posthumous pardons as a form of restorative justice.
“The main benefit of posthumous pardons is in terms of putting a spotlight on wrongs of the past and hopefully guiding us in the future in a way that will minimize or reduce the risk of us committing the same or similar wrongs in our own times in our own society,” Gordon said.
A native Minnesotan, Gordon had not heard of the infamous Duluth lynchings — in which a mob dragged three African American men, co-workers of Mason’s accused in the same reported sexual assault, from jail and hanged them from a lamppost — before watching a documentary on the event in 2019.
After learning that history, Gordon worked with Jerry Blackwell, his law partner of 30 years, on a petition for Mason’s pardon. The Minnesota Board of Pardons — made up of the governor, attorney general and chief justice of the state Supreme Court — granted the pardon on June 12, 2020.
That was three days before the 100th anniversary of the lynchings and three weeks after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, which touched off social unrest and spurred calls for racial reckoning around the world.
The partners served as special assistant attorneys general during the trial that resulted in the murder conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in Floyd’s death. Blackwell was a lead prosecutor while Gordon worked behind the scenes developing medical evidence.
Gordon applauded President Joe Biden’s nomination last week of Blackwell to serve as a judge in U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota.
“He is on a path that will allow him to devote himself to public service,” Gordon said. “I have said that he is the Thurgood Marshall of our time. He is a phenomenal trial lawyer and will be a phenomenal asset to the federal bench.”
Gordon said he “may have a more prominent role with the initial presentation of testimony” in the trial of former Minneapolis police officers J. Alexander Keung and Tou Thao, who are charged with aiding and abetting Floyd’s murder. That’s assuming that Blackwell is on the bench when they go to trial. Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill on Tuesday set an Oct. 24 trial date for former officers.
Gordon said he is increasingly drawn, like Blackwell, to public service and would like to do more to pursue other posthumous pardons and other efforts to advance racial and restorative justice.
“At this point in my career, I’ve been practicing law for 42 years, all civil litigation,” Gordon said. “It’s still rewarding, I love being a lawyer and I love of practicing law. But I have to be honest, the most rewarding things I have done in in my career are the things I haven’t gotten paid for.”
The following question-and-answer conservation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why did you write your article on Max Mason and posthumous pardons?
A: It would have been an important thing at any time for this posthumous pardon and the recognition of the wrong that had been committed against Max Mason and certainly the individuals who were lynched in dark, dark chapter of Minnesota history that for years lay buried. But [Mason’s pardon] was particularly important, I think, and poignant in that it occurred within days of George Floyd’s murder. From that experience, I thought, well, maybe I should turn this into a law review article. The University of St. Thomas has a strong commitment as an institution and in particular as a law school to restorative justice, racial justice, and it’s a good place for that to be published.
Q: How did you frame the petition seeking the posthumous pardon?
A: I focused on heavily on three elements. No. 1, the history of the Duluth lynchings and the wrongful conviction of Max Mason. Then a section that went into perhaps mind-numbing detail on why the pardon power did exist in Minnesota and other states. And then finally especially the racial milieu that was prevailing in Minnesota in the 1920s. That part was pretty powerful to research and write. While it was interesting on its own for the historical information, it was striking in the parallels to our own era.
Q: What parallels did you see?
A: A couple of things that were really striking, first of all, was how open people were about their racist views. There was a vibrant Ku Klux Klan movement in Minnesota. That was kind of mind-blowing. The only conclusion I can draw is it was societally acceptable for people to be so openly racist and involved so overtly in racist organizations like the KKK.
I fast-forward to today and I think we’re seeing a similar situation where people are fine not merely believing but espousing virulently racist thoughts and being members of organizations that call themselves the Patriot Front or 3 Percenters or Proud Boys. … Most of our most onerous immigration laws were established in the 1920s in an express effort to limit immigration to the United States by people of color, Catholics and Jews, in an effort to maintain an all-white Protestant hegemony.
I think we have some strong parallels to that today. At the core of what was driving things in that period that I think is similar today is the fear of change in the power structure, fear on the part of those accustomed to having power coming to terms with the potential loss of that power.