This fall, Becky Pardue, 46, had every reason to believe she wouldn't be making these trips anymore. In August a murder conviction for which her husband, Michael Pardue, 41, had served 24 years of a life sentence was dropped after the Alabama Supreme Court upheld a ruling that Pardue's taped confession had been coerced. So why is he still locked up? Because three times during the past two decades, Michael Pardue has tried to escape.
It will take yet another court decision or a reprieve from the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles before Pardue can walk free. And there are no guarantees. He may be off the hook for murder, but Pardue "has enough other convictions to warrant remaining in prison for life," says Mobile County District Attorney John Tyson, referring to counts of burglary, theft and second-degree escape from his third breakout 10 years ago. Yet Pardue's predicament has attracted supporters from around the nation—including Carmen McKinley, 37, the sister of one of his supposed victims, Ronald Rider. "I tend now to believe that Michael is innocent," says McKinley. "He needs to be out of prison."
To that end, no one is more devoted than Becky, who fell in love with Pardue across the barrier of prison bars, married him when there seemed no hope of his release and has since fought tirelessly for his freedom. "I'm so grateful that we met," she says. "It has given me a reason to live and something to fight for. And what better cause is there than the truth?"
Michael Pardue had good reason to be nervous when he stepped into the police station in tiny Saraland, Ala., on May 22, 1973, to retrieve his car, which he claimed had been stolen. For one thing, Pardue, then 17, had lied about the theft. In fact, he had abandoned his car with a flat tire the previous evening, stolen a nearby pickup and spent the night cruising around the shipyards in Mobile. That same night two gas station attendants—Ronald Rider, 20, and Harvey Hodges, 68—were killed in separate robberies 15 miles apart, near the shipyards.
The pickup theft was not Pardue's first foray onto the wrong side of the law. But nothing could have prepared him for what was to come. Led by detective Bill Travis, a lawman known for his short temper and his trademark white patent-leather boots, a team of detectives from two counties interrogated the teen for 78 hours straight. In that time, Pardue claims he was denied a lawyer. "I just started telling them what they wanted to hear," he recalls. "I kept thinking, 'Soon I can go home.' "
But that was not to be. By the time they were through, Pardue had confessed not only to the gas station murders, but to killing a third man, Theodore White, 43, whose decomposed body was discovered in a ditch even as Pardue was being questioned. His confession was critical, for there was no physical evidence tying Pardue to any of the crimes. A sawed-off shotgun that police seized as the murder weapon from the home of Pardue's uncle hadn't been fired for months.
That August, in a jury trial lasting just two hours, Pardue was convicted of killing Rider. Two months later, after speaking with his attorney, he pleaded guilty to the other murders in fear of the electric chair, even though the death penalty was unconstitutional in 1973. (That same year detective Travis, who died two years ago, was fired amid allegations of brutality toward suspects.) Pardue was sentenced to three consecutive life terms. In 1991 a federal magistrate found that Pardue's legal representation for an appeal that was filed and then withdrawn "was so deficient as to amount in every respect to no representation at all."
Prison provided Pardue a strange sort of comfort. "For the first time in my life," he says, "I found some kind of peace." Until then, his life had been a patchwork of poverty and abuse. His father, Shelby Pardue, was a construction worker and alcoholic who routinely beat Michael and his mother, Virginia, who worked as a waitress, while his sister Kay, now 39, looked on. Virginia divorced Shelby when Michael was 11. A second marriage was brief; by 1972 the family was living in a trailer in Sara-land, and Shelby was back on the scene, more violent than before.
One Sunday night that spring he shot Virginia in the heart with a .44 Magnum "that left a hole in her back the size of a quart fruit jar," says Michael, who had rushed in from the yard when he heard the blast. During his teens he slept most nights in his car, drifted from job to job in the shipyards and felt welcome nowhere.
Until Becky Pouyadou came along. In 1983, after 10 years in jail, Pardue spotted an ad for a mail-order T-shirt business that Becky had started and wrote to her offering to sell his designs. They began corresponding. "He understood me so well that he could take my thought and embellish it," says Becky. "I actually fell in love with Michael on paper." They met in the visiting room of Atmore Prison around Thanksgiving of that year. "I saw him through two sets of bars, and yet he had this inner strength and pride," Becky says.
Despite two escape attempts when he was in his early 20s, Pardue had earned a job as a cowboy on the prison's minimum-security ranch and was allowed an eight-hour pass once a month. He was soon spending those eight hours in a room at a nearby Best Western, which Becky lovingly decorated with pictures from home. "I'd cook wonderful food, and we'd make love all day and laugh and hug, and it was glorious," she recalls.
But even that bliss was short-lived. A year later, because of the publicity following the mysterious death of a murderer on a three-day furlough, passes were eliminated for prisoners with consecutive life sentences. Pardue's appeal for parole was rejected, and he was told his work on the ranch would soon end. Angry and desperate, he broke into an assistant warden's house, stole a pistol from the night-stand and drove off in the warden's Corvette. Recaptured at a cousin's trailer 40 hours later, he was sentenced to life without parole.
Despite his miserable prospects, Becky married Michael in Holman Prison in 1988, and their long battle for his release began. This week they will launch their latest salvo, filing for $25 million in wrongful imprisonment suits against Mobile and Baldwin counties. Apart from applying to have the escape conviction reversed, they are also asking the State of Alabama to reopen the original murder case to clear Pardue's name once and for all.
Meanwhile, Becky keeps up her weekly pilgrimage. Sixty-five miles from St. Clair prison, she pulls into a rest stop. When she emerges from the ladies' room, the rollers are gone; rumpled travel clothes are replaced by a new dress and fresh makeup. "We have come this far, and we're going to win," she declares in the dawn light. "Michael and I are going to live the rest of our lives together."
GAIL CAMERON WESCOTT in Mobile