07 July 2022 :
Pennsylvania Teen Exonerated 91 Years After Sham Trial and Execution on Racially Motivated Charges that He Had Murdered a White Woman
An African-American teenager who was convicted and sentenced to death in Pennsylvania on false charges that he had murdered a white woman has been exonerated, 91 years after he was executed.
On June 13, 2022, Delaware County Court of Common Pleas Judge Kevin Kelly granted a motion filed jointly by lawyers for Alexander McClay Williams and the Delaware County District Attorney’s office to posthumously overturn Williams’ conviction and death sentence. District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer then filed a motion to “nol pros” the case, dismissing the charges against Williams and formally exonerating him. Williams, who was 16 years old when he was put to death in the electric chair, was the youngest person ever executed in Pennsylvania.
The court action was the culmination of years of effort by Williams’ family and Sam Lemon, the great-grandson of his trial lawyer, to clear the teen of the murder of his school matron, Vida Robare, who was White. Robare had actually been murdered by her abusive ex-husband, shortly after she had obtained a divorce from him on grounds of “extreme cruelty.” Williams was represented at trial by William Ridley, the first African American admitted to the Bar of Delaware County. Ridley was paid $10 by the Court for expenses (the equivalent of $173 today) and had only 74 days to establish a defense for Williams, without any help from investigators, experts or resources. A white judge and an all-white, all-male jury convicted and condemned Williams to death at the Delaware County Court House in Media on February 27, 1931. The trial was based upon a confession coerced by police, after prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence. The entire trial took less than a day. He was executed without an appeal six months later.
Judge Kelly granted Williams a new trial, finding that the conviction was obtained as a result of “numerous fundamental due process violations.” A spokesperson for the District Attorney’s office said the decision to nol pros the case was “an acknowledgement that the charges against Williams should never have been brought.”
“Sadly, we cannot undo the past,” Stollsteimer said. “We cannot rewrite history to erase the egregious wrongs of our forebearers. However, when, as here, justice can be served by publicly acknowledging such a wrong, we must seize that opportunity.” Susie Carter, Williams’ only living sibling, responded joyously. “I am happy. I am happy,” she said. “There’s no way they can bring him back, but let his name be cleared of all that. He did not do it.”
Robare had been stabbed 47 times with an ice pick during the murder and suffered two broken ribs and a skull fracture. Williams, however, had no blood on him that day. A bloody handprint was discovered at the crime scene. Although law enforcement had the prints examined by experts, the results were not presented at trial and were withheld from the defense. Police never investigated Robare’s ex-husband as a possible suspect.
Williams’ confession, which did not match the circumstances of the crime, was given after hours of police interrogation under undocumented circumstances. A 1931 photograph shows Williams with what appears to have a black eye sustained during police interrogation. When Williams was sentenced to death, he shouted that he had been promised he wouldn’t be executed if he confessed.
Williams’ case bears a striking resemblance to the case of George Stinney, a 14-year-old Black boy who was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury in South Carolina in 1944 for the murder of 2 young white girls. Stinney was the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century. His entire trial and sentencing lasted just 3 hours and the jury deliberated for only 10 minutes. As with Williams, Stinney did not file any appeals and was executed only months after his conviction. A South Carolina trial court vacated Stinney’s conviction in 2014, posthumously exonerating him.