Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon today granted pardons to 18 individuals, including 16 clergy members and activists who were convicted of trespassing after they staged a protest in the Missouri Senate gallery over Missouri’s decision not to expand Medicaid.
The so-called Medicaid 23 – several of them well-known African-American ministers from Kansas City – refused to leave the gallery during their protest in May 2014 after they were ordered to do so by Capitol police.
After an unusual mass trial last August, a Cole County jury found 22 of the 23 guilty of trespassing, a misdemeanor, but acquitted them of obstructing government operations. The jury recommended no jail time but the defendants faced judge-imposed fines of up to $500.
Sixteen of the defendants petitioned Nixon for clemency; the other six, including the Rev. Wallace S. Hartsfield Sr., one of the best-known clergymen in Kansas City, declined to seek pardons and said they wanted their convictions to stay on their records.
During a brief telephone interview Friday, Hartsfield, former pastor of the Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City, said he did not think he needed a pardon because he was not guilty of any wrongdoing.
“I appreciate the governor, I appreciate his concern for the Medicaid 23 and I’m included in that. But the reason for my decision was that I do not feel that I did anything wrong, that I was tried wrongfully,” Hartsfield said.
“I’m a citizen of this state, and I believe I had a right to be there and a right to speak.”
Hartsfield and his fellow clergy members were among hundreds of protesters who gathered in Jefferson City to urge lawmakers to expand Medicaid eligibility. Currently, Missouri is one of 19 states that have declined to do so.
It’s estimated that expanding eligibility to those earning under 138 percent of the federal poverty level would extend health insurance coverage to 300,000 low-income Missourians.
The Rev. Vernon P. Howard Jr., senior pastor at St. Mark Union Church in Kansas City, was also convicted but sought and received a pardon.
Howard said during a telephone interview that he appreciated Nixon’s “understanding of the issues at stake here that transcend any of the Medicaid 23 individuals.”
Among them, he said, were the protesters’ right to freedom of speech and the fairness of the jury’s composition, which included two African Americans.
“And then thirdly, but not necessarily in this order with respect to priority, is the issue of quality health care as a right for all of the citizens of this country as opposed to it being a privilege for the wealthy few,” Howard said.
Asked if he would do it all over again, he said, “Oh, there's no doubt that the criminal case that we endured when compared to the loss of approximately 700 lives per year in the state of Missouri due to lack of Medicaid expansion is worth it.”
Howard was referring to a 2014 study published on the Health Affairs blog that examined the health and financial impacts on states that opted out of Medicaid expansion.
“The individuals who decided to go this route to dramatize this issue and to speak about this moral travesty believed from the beginning that Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa and yes, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, would do the same thing if they were here,” Howard said.
Dan Margolies is KCUR’s health editor. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.