JEFFERSON CITY — A man convicted of murdering a hitchhiker more than three decades ago walked out of prison Wednesday after receiving help from two governors.
Michael Wayne Ford Sr. was the last to be freed among five murderers who became eligible for parole when Gov. Bob Holden granted them clemency shortly before leaving office in January 2005.
In 1977, when Ford was 20, he and Melvin Huffman picked up hitchhiker Larry Sansoucie in St. Louis. Sansoucie was stabbed to death after a series of arguments and his body was found in a Jefferson County well.
Ford, who denies stabbing Sansoucie, was convicted of capital murder and was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 50 years.
Huffman was convicted of second-degree murder and received a 40-year sentence. He was paroled in 1993 after serving 15 years. In court documents submitted on Ford's behalf, Huffman admitted stabbing Sansoucie, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported.
While in prison, Ford fought a guard and three years were added to his sentence. But he also helped solve prison crimes, testifying against inmates and prison guards in Missouri and other states.
Former Gov. Joe Teasdale, who was in office when the murder occurred, represented Ford in a clemency request. State lawmakers and prison officials also urged for his release.
In November 2004, Holden granted clemency to Ford, which made him eligible for parole. But the state parole board twice denied his release. In August 2008, Cole County Judge Richard Callahan, a former prosecutor, ruled that the parole board could no longer use the circumstances of the crime as justification for keeping Ford in prison.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections said the parole board decided June 9 to grant Ford's release.
Just after 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, Ford walked out of the Jefferson City Correctional Center, where he was met by his parents, sister and attorney.
Ford, 52, shook hands with the guards, thanked a newspaper reporter who had written about the case and waved to prison staff as he walked to the parking lot.
"I feel great," he said while thanking others who had taken up his case.
Sansoucie's sister expressed frustration with Ford's release.
"He went on with his life. He has a wife and kids, and we just have memories and a picture," said Mary Sansoucie, who was 16 when her brother was murdered. "It's not right, but there's nothing I can do to change any of that. I just know I don't want my kids growing up thinking what he did was OK."
Sansoucie said her brother had just turned 22 when he was killed and that he had never met Ford or Huffman, who police said had been drinking.
Her family received a letter Wednesday morning saying that Ford would be freed.
Sansoucie said Ford should have spent 50 years in prison, claiming he "got rewarded for killing someone" because politicians changed the rules of the justice system.
"The time he did was all the justice we'll ever get," she said. "I don't understand it, but I can't change anything."
Callahan told the Tribune in 2008 that there was a lack of consistency in the punishment meted out in the case.
The newspaper described how Ford assisted the prosecution of those involved in a 1981 hostage-taking at the Missouri State Penitentiary, the precursor to the Jefferson City Correctional Center. Two armed inmates who were trying to escape took three guards hostage. Callahan was an assistant prosecutor during the investigation of the hostage-taking.
Donna Ford, 51, who watched her brother leave prison, said the ordeal has been difficult for the family.
"I think he's been in there a lot longer than he should have," she said.
Ford plans to live with his parents in Franklin County outside St. Louis and work with his nephew building houses. He said he wants to get training as a mechanic.
Asked if he expected to ever be released from prison, Ford said: "I always believed I would. I just didn't know when."