Just after noon Thursday, a federal judge ordered the immediate release of former Jefferson County Commissioner Chris McNair, serving a five year prison sentence for corruption charges related to the county's sewer scandal.
The 87-year old McNair has been in prison since 2011 at the federal medical facility in Rochester, Minnesota.
U.S. District Judge Lynwood Smith issued his decision just a few hours after the Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Charles E. Samuels, Jr. filed a five page motion in federal court asking that McNair be allowed to go home because his health was declining.
Smith’s decision comes just more than two years after he ordered McNair to prison.
McNair was convicted of bribery and conspiracy in April 2006 and he pleaded guilty in February 2007 to soliciting $140,000 in bribes connected to county sewer construction projects.
He was ordered to serve a five year prison sentence, but remained free while his attorney Doug Jones filed appeals on his behalf. Five other people convicted in McNair’s case went to jail in 2010.
In March 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected McNair’s appeal. That rejection also meant several sewer contractors, including Roland Pugh Senior, Bobby J. Rast, Daniel B. Rast, and their companies were denied a hearing before the high court.
About the same time, Jones, filed what the court called “voluminous medical records” as part of McNair’s plea for relief, “based upon the defendant's age (currently 85 years) and his physical and emotional infirmities, which include Type 2 diabetes mellitus, a history of prostate cancer, a history of strokes, sleep apnea, hypertension, and depression, among other conditions.”
Smith reviewed those records and denied the motion for probation.
Smith rejected the plea he use sentencing guidelines created just a few month’s earlier allowing federal judges to consider the age and health of a defendant when sentencing them. The judge in April 2011 wrote, "the factors set forth in the November 1, 2010 amendments to the Sentencing Guidelines could be considered if defendant were being sentenced today, a retroactive reduction in defendant's sentence "is not authorized."
Jones said after the motion for probation was denied, “We are down to our last appeal - for mercy from the President.”
That Presidential pardon never came.
In 2011, Smith also ordered McNair's monthly pension checks garnished by 25 percent to help pay the $851,927 in restitution to Jefferson County he was told he owed for the conviction.
In his order Thursday, Smith wrote, “this court concludes that the defendant's age (87) and deteriorating health constitute extraordinary and compelling reasons warranting the requested relief."
The order reduces McNair's sentence to time served and the 24-months of probation Smith imposed during the initial sentencing. McNair is to go to the Birmingham home of his wife and adult daughter as soon as travel arrangements can be made.
McNair was a photographer in the early 1960's when he was first tragically thrust into the public limelight.
On September 15, 1963, his daughter Denise McNair became one of the four girls killed in the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.
The painful memories of that event were evident on his face in 2001 as he sat in the witness chair in the Jefferson County District courthouse testifying in the trial of Thomas Blanton, one of three klansmen convicted of killing the girls. McNair sat stoically that Saturday telling the court what happened on the day of the bombing and in the months that followed as the investigation was stymied by efforts to downplay the event that became known as a turning point in the civil rights movement.
Jones was the attorney prosecuting both Blanton and the subsequent trial that convicted Bobby Frank Cherry for the bombing.
It is expected McNair’s travel arrangements will be made quickly to allow him to return home.