Controversial pardon marred legacy of past Kentucky governor

Published 8:41 am Thursday, May 3, 2018

By Stuart W. Sanders

Pardons have been in the news lately.

President Donald Trump recently pardoned Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, who was convicted of obstruction of justice and perjury. Libby’s charges stemmed from the investigation surrounding the leaking of CIA officer Valerie Plame’s identity.

Email newsletter signup

The president may also be considering a posthumous pardon for boxing champion Jack Johnson, who died in 1946. In 1913, Johnson was convicted of violating an act intended to prevent human trafficking. Authorities used the act to punish Johnson, an African-American, for having a relationship with a white woman.

While these reports have made headlines, clemency granted by one 19th century Kentucky governor marred his legacy.

The Pennsylvania-born Joseph Desha became Kentucky’s ninth governor in 1824. By all accounts, Desha had the experience to be an effective chief executive. A veteran of the War of 1812, Desha served in the Kentucky House and Senate before holding a congressional seat for 12 years.

Desha spent much of his gubernatorial term contending with issues surrounding debt relief for Kentuckians who had suffered during the Panic of 1819. However, his first year in office included a major, tragic distraction.

In 1824, authorities charged Desha’s son, Isaac, with murder.

While staying at a tavern in Mays Lick, Kentucky, Isaac Desha met a Mississippian named Francis Baker. When Baker left the tavern to visit a friend, Desha accompanied him. Baker never reached his friend’s house. Instead, a newspaper wrote, Baker “was found several days afterwards in the woods, covered with logs and rubbish, with his throat cut from ear to ear! The back of his head was much bruised, supposed to have been occasioned by the strokes of a large whip in Desha’s possession …”

Witnesses also claimed that Desha’s “hands and clothes were bloody.” The governor’s son also had Baker’s horse and a blood-covered bridle in his possession.

Arrested for Baker’s murder, Isaac was confined in Flemingsburg, where he had to be protected from a vigilante mob that hoped to lynch him.

Shortly thereafter, a bill in the state legislature ordered a change of venue for the trial. Governor Desha, father of the accused, signed the bill and the trial was moved to Cynthiana.

During Desha’s first trial, a jury found him guilty and sentenced him to hang. The judge, however, granted Desha a new trial because citizens demanding a guilty verdict had reputedly intimidated the jury.

Isaac’s second trial, which Governor Desha attended, was held in October 1825. Although this jury also found Isaac guilty and sentenced him to death, the judge again granted a new trial. One newspaper, recognizing a travesty of justice, blamed “the patronage of his father.”

Isaac, however, was determined to avoid a third trial. On July 10, 1826, he cut his own throat.

Although Isaac severed his windpipe, he survived. However, he did bear the scars from the attempt. “Isaac looks as well as he did before he cut his throat, though not quite so fleshy,” a reporter wrote several months later. “He breathes through a tube in which he makes a considerable wheezing.” For the rest of his life, Isaac breathed through this silver tube.

For Governor Desha, two trials and an attempted suicide were enough.

Although the evidence against Isaac was overwhelming, Governor Desha dashed any hopes for a third trial. He pardoned his son.

The governor argued that since it had been difficult to procure a jury for another trial, Isaac could not receive “a speedy public trial by an impartial jury.” Moreover, the governor believed that “the whole of the evidence” was “circumstantial, and from much of it being irreconcilable, I have no doubt of his being innocent of the foul charge; therefore is an object worthy of executive clemency.”

The Frankfort Commentator was dismayed at the pardon, noting that two juries had found Isaac guilty thanks to “testimony as conclusive as perhaps ever was adduced against a criminal.”

Isaac may have gone free, but he was not reformed. The governor’s son eventually traveled to Texas, where authorities arrested him for murdering another traveler. Witnesses recognized him, in part, from the silver tube that aided his breathing.

Isaac died the day before his trial was to commence at San Felipe de Austin, Texas. While some sources state that he died from a fever, he may have committed suicide. Upon reporting his death, a Mississippi newspaper wrote that, “The world, it appears, is at last relieved from the presence of the notorious, and as it seems abandoned, Desha.”

Governor Desha retired from politics after his gubernatorial term. He died in Georgetown, Kentucky, in October 1842. The pardon of his son, viewed by many as crass nepotism that tarnished the justice system, also blemished Desha’s legacy as Kentucky’s ninth governor.

Stuart W. Sanders is the Kentucky Historical Society’s History Advocate.