Pardon granted in 1920 Duluth rape conviction

Updated: June 12, 2020 05:28 PM

Minnesota's Board of Pardons has granted a posthumous pardon to a man convicted of rape in Duluth 100 years ago.


Max Mason was convicted of the same sexual assault allegation that led to the lynching of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie. Mason had sought a pardon but did not receive one before he died decades ago at the age of 43.

"This is 100 years overdue. By not addressing this, it continued the systemic racism, it allowed the things to happen that have happened. There is a direct line between what happened with Max Mason and Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie, there is a direct line to what happened to George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis and the inability of us to address this stain on the soul of our state for so long has led to those situations," Walz said moments before approving the pardon.

The pardon board is made up of Walz, Attorney General Keith Ellison, and Chief Justice Lorie Gildea. All three voted in favor of the pardon during a virtual meeting Friday.

There had been some question about whether the board had the authority to grant a posthumous pardon, which is something it has never done before. Gildea said shortly before the vote that she believes statutory language does give the board the authority to grant a posthumous pardon.

Jerry Blackwell, the attorney who presented Mason's case, compared it the recent ones of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Philando Castile, and Jamar Clark. He said all we have left to do right by Mason is the pardon. 

"I'm talking here about a history that does not go away until it is set right. Max Mason's story is a part of the Duluth tragedy story. And it is a history that does not go away," Blackwell said. 

He said a pardon would also be good for public welfare.

"Mr. Mason deserves our mercy, our clemency, because we served him a tainted justice when it should have been pure," Blackwell said.

St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin was one of many who supported the pardon.

"This is the only thing we have left that we can do to bring some justice to this situation I think," Rubin said in an interview Thursday in advance of the vote.

The details of the conviction are outlined in a 70 page petition. Rubin said he had never seen "such a detailed recitation of the facts that led up to his trial."

When a Pardon Extraordinary Application is sent to the Board, the County Attorney from where the conviction came is invited to weigh in. Rubin gave his support of a posthumous pardon in February.

"When I look at this request for a pardon and I look at what was said," Rubin said, "At how the trial was conducted, how the investigation was conducted, I can support it because sometimes mercy is necessary to bring about some justice. Sometimes that's the path."

Rubin's hope is that a pardon, even 100 years late, rectifies an injustice and inspires racial harmony.

"The reason is that there was an injustice. But if it happens to make things a little better in our relationships and give us some hope for a better future for us, for our kids, and our grandkids, I think it's important."

Carl Crawford, Duluth's Human Rights Officer, said it is always the right time to do the right thing. 

"We've said it for a long time that he was innocent. But now, it's true. And it's print, and we know it to be true," Crawford said. "It's a very exciting time and a huge step for our legal system in the State of Minnesota to go back and recognize a wrong that was done."

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