Greensboro News & Record
January 7, 2001

Author: PARKER LEE NASH Staff Writer

After 14 years in prison, a 62-year-old Guilford County man will walk free Tuesday because of an order signed by Gov. Jim Hunt in his last hours in office.

Joe Kennedy was condemned in 1986 to serve two consecutive life sentences after his daughter, Vickie Kennedy, told a jury that her father had molested her. Joe Kennedy has always maintained his innocence. Vickie Kennedy recanted her story of abuse two years ago, saying she was a spiteful, mixed-up teenager who lied to escape her father’s strict, religious upbringing. Since then, she’s worked to free him.

Vickie Kennedy shared her story with the News & Record in November, soon after Greensboro attorney Don Vaughan asked the governor to review Joe Kennedy’s case.

One of Hunt’s aides notified Vaughan early Saturday that the commutation had been granted, and Vaughan picked up the paperwork for Kennedy’s release from the governor’s office a little later.

When ! word of Hunt’s decision came Saturday morning, Vickie Kennedy barely could speak.

“Thank you God,” she said, choking on tears. “My daddy’s coming home.”

Hunt commuted Joe Kennedy’s sentence to time served. A sentence commutation, which the state’s governor alone has the power to grant, isn’t necessarily a ruling of innocence. Since 1993, Hunt has commuted fewer than 20 sentences, according to his clemency office. His reasons for granting the commutations, and details about each case, are rarely publicized at the governor’s request, his aides say.

Hunt released no statement explaining why he commuted Joe Kennedy’s prison sentence. However, questions about Kennedy’s conviction have lingered since Vickie Kennedy recanted her story of abuse two years ago.

Originally, she testified that her father raped her with sticks. At one point, she said, he forced her brother to hold her down while her father molested her on the kitchen floor. Then, ! she said, her father ordered her brother to do the same thing while th e father held her down. All the while, she said, her mother watched this happen from a few feet away.

No physical evidence of sexual abuse was ever found.

Vickie Kennedy now says it was all lies.

“Only an evil person could do what I’ve done,” Vickie Kennedy told the News & Record in an exclusive interview in November.

Hunt’s order will allow Kennedy to walk out of the Rowan Correctional Institute in Salisbury at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday and go home to his wife and a new job that’s waiting for him.

“The governor rarely exercises this power,” Vaughan said Saturday morning, just after the order was issued. “But it’s a strong and just power when properly used. In this case, it’s setting an innocent man free.”

Joe Kennedy couldn’t be reached for comment Saturday. But earlier he told the News & Record that he’d forgiven his daughter and that he clung to the hope of getting out.

“God will get me out, some day, hopefully,” Joe Kennedy said, “if that’s in his plan for me.”

Martha Ann Kennedy, Joe Kennedy’s wife and Vickie Kennedy’s mother, trembled as the news filled their little brick house on Hicone Road in northeast Guilford County – the house she and son Rick Kennedy have struggled to keep since Joe Kennedy was jailed.

“We’ve all been in prison for so long,” Martha Ann Kennedy said. “It’s hard to imagine that we’re free now, that my Joe is coming back to us.”

The family planned to celebrate quietly, with close friends who have stuck by them through the years.

Joe Kennedy will live with his wife and son, who’s a a foreman at Starr Electric in Greensboro. He has a job waiting. A longtime church friend, Tom Andrews, has offered to employ Kennedy at Monticello Oil Co. in Browns Summit. Before going to prison, Joe Kennedy worked as a bookkeeper at Burlington Industries for nearly 30 years.

Vickie Kennedy, 32, will continue to live wi! th her grandmother, about a mile from her parents’ home, family member s said. Vickie Kennedy is a severe diabetic who, until two years ago when she recanted her story, lived in mental hospitals and state-run group homes for people with psychological and emotional problems. She is unable to work.

Steve Kennedy, Joe Kennedy’s brother, said Saturday that the family owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the governor and to everyone who’s believed in Joe. Their 80-year-old mother, he said, is ailing. She’s prayed that she could live to see Joe come home.

“She’s been holding on for this day,” Steve Kennedy said. “We all have.”

Copyright 2001 Greensboro News & Record