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Lenny Bruce granted posthumous pardon

From Jonathan Wald

Comedian Lenny Bruce is seen in this 1963 photo taken in New York.

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CNN's Aaron Brown reports on the posthumous pardon of pioneering comedian Lenny Bruce for a nearly 40-year-old obscenity conviction.
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George E. Pataki
Lenny Bruce
Entertainment (general)

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Gov. George Pataki has pardoned the late stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce for a 1964 obscenity conviction.

"The posthumous pardon of Lenny Bruce is a declaration of New York's commitment to upholding the First Amendment," Pataki said Tuesday. "I hope this pardon serves as a reminder of the precious freedoms we are fighting to preserve as we continue to wage the war on terror."

Kitty Bruce, Bruce's 48-year-old daughter, said she was overwhelmed by the news.

"I'm very rarely speechless," said Bruce. "But when I first heard he was pardoned I was speechless and then I began to cry."

"My dad had so much to say and so little time to say it. He always had to have the last word, and I guess this pardon proves that," Bruce said.

Entertainers and lawyers sent a petition requesting the pardon to Albany on May 20, with letters of support from comedians including Robin Williams and eccentric magicians Penn and Teller, and First Amendment lawyers such as Floyd Abrams.

"A pardon now is too late to save Lenny Bruce. He is dead and past caring either way," reads the comedians' letter. "But a posthumous pardon would set the record straight and thereby demonstrate New York's commitment to freedom -- free speech, free press and free thinking."

"It's been a long time in coming, but Lenny Bruce is now back center-stage. It couldn't have happened to a better, nastier comedian," Ronald Collins, co-sponsor of the petition, told CNN.

"It's important to know that the governor pardoned Lenny on the basis of the law as it was in 1964," Collins said. "He's saying that Lenny Bruce had it right and the state of New York had it wrong."

On November 4, 1964, Bruce was convicted by a Manhattan court of "word crimes" committed in the spring of that year during three stand-up routines at the Cafe Au Go Go. He was especially reprimanded for jokes made at the expense of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Bruce was sent to Riker's Island prison for four months. He represented himself in the appellate court, but the appeal was hampered by his ignorance of procedural aspects of the law. He died of a drug overdose two years later a convicted man.

Bruce also faced trial for "word crimes" in other U.S. cities. A Los Angeles court found him not guilty.

The comedian was acquitted after another trial in San Francisco and had a further conviction reversed by the Illinois Supreme Court.

"Only in this state [New York] was Lenny Bruce convicted and sentenced," Collins said. "It was the only time in the history of this state that a comedian has been prosecuted for words and words alone."

"It wasn't that Lenny Bruce was colorful, it wasn't that Lenny Bruce was using four-letter words, it was that Lenny Bruce was [angering] people in power. He was saying things about race, about religion, about politicians that offended people. It is precisely that which the First Amendment is designed to protect," said Collins.

Collins and his co-author, David Skover, revealed that Bruce's conviction still stood in their 2002 book "The Trials of Lenny Bruce." They enlisted the help of First Amendment lawyer Robert Corn-Revere in the effort to win the pardon.

When asked about why they submitted the petition 37 years after Bruce's death, Corn-Revere told CNN: "The timing reflects the fact that an appeal was never returned. At this point in history as the U.S. seeks to instruct the rest of the world on what it means to live in a free society, it is fitting that we correct our past mistakes, like the conviction of Lenny Bruce in 1964."

He admitted he was surprised by Pataki's decision. "There's no personal gain for Pataki by doing this," Corn-Revere said. "The only reason he would grant a petition like this is for the principle of it -- he thought it was the right thing to do."

Not only is it the first posthumous pardon granted by Pataki, but it also is the first posthumous pardon granted in New York, according to records kept by the New York State Division of Parole.

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