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Minnesota grants state's first posthumous pardon to black man in 1920 case that led to lynchings

The Minnesota Board of Pardons on Friday granted the state's first posthumous pardon to a man convicted over a white woman's false rape claim that led to lynchings a century ago, CBS Minnesota reports. The pardon comes three days before the 100-anniversary of the Duluth lynchings, a dark stain on Minnesota's history.

The board took up the 1920 case of Max Mason, who was in Duluth that year with a traveling circus. He was one of several black men accused of raping a 19-year-old white woman in the city. Three men — Isaac McGhie, Elmer Jackson and Elias Clayton — were lynched as a result, according to the Minnesota Historical Society

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View of police station after damage by the lynching mob. Minnesota Historical Society

After their murders, Mason was the only one convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison. However, the doctor who examined the accuser never found evidence of rape. 

Mason was denied parole six times between 1922 and 1925, according to the pardon application. He was released from prison in 1925 on the condition that he not return to Minnesota for the next 16 years. A district attorney several years later questioned the evidence against Mason and said he likely would not have been convicted if he were white.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who is on the Board of Pardons, tweeted Thursday that "justice delayed is justice denied. But 100 years later, justice can still be done."

Ellison, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and Minnesota Chief Justice Lorie Gildea all voted to pardon Mason. Walz said there was a "direct line" between Mason's case and the murder of George Floyd.

"This is 100 years overdue," Walz said. "By not addressing this, it continued the systemic racism."

Walz said Mason's case was scheduled to be heard by the pardon's board over six months ago, "not knowing that we would see the murder of George Floyd in the meantime."

"I don't believe anything happens by chance," Walz said. "I believe we were given this opportunity."

Among those who spoke in support of the pardon was Mike Tusken, the grand-nephew of Irene Tusken, the woman who made the rape claim. Mike Tusken is now the chief of police in Duluth.

Tusken said he wasn't aware of his aunt's involvement until his mother told him about it in 2000, a few years after the aunt's death. Tusken said he believed the secrecy was because of his family's shame and a desire to forget about the injustice.

Tusken said his aunt died in a nursing home after suffering a stroke, incapable of speech and "unable to atone" for her actions.

Tusken called the case against Mason an "abomination" and a "disgrace to the police profession." He said Mason was arrested based "wholly on speculation, conjecture and intimidation" and out of "desperation to make an arrest and hold someone, anyone accountable, regardless of the facts and evidence in the case."

"Justice was denied to Mr. Mason during his lifetime, but this board has an opportunity to right this wrong today," Tusken said.

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