Photo by Sebastián León Prado on Unsplash

Wrongful Executions Of Young Black Boys Reverberates Through The Year s

Phil Garber


Nearly a century ago, with the nation in the throes of the Great Depression and endemic racist violence, a frail, 16-year-old African American teenager was convicted by an all-white jury and sent to the electric chair for allegedly stabbing a white woman to death at a Pennsylvania youth reformatory.

In 2022, Alexander McClay Williams’ conviction was vacated after a years long campaign uncovered evidence that the youth was coerced into confessing, that he could not have been the killer and instead the culprit, while never charged, was likely the woman’s estranged husband.

Williams was one of thousands of predominantly African Americans who were imprisoned or executed only to later be exonerated because evidence was either withheld or did not exist.

Williams was the youngest person ever executed in Pennsylvania. While nothing can bring back Williams, his family is suing the state for damages to compensate for the young man’s wrongful death. The federal lawsuit was filed last month against Delaware County and the estates of two detectives and a prosecutor who had pursued the case.

Williams, who had learning disabilities, stood 4 feet, 7 inches tall and weighed all of 91 pounds. He was convicted in October 1930 of killing Vida Robare, 34, in one of the homes on the grounds of the Glen Mills School for Boys in Delaware County, Pa. The white woman, who was a matron at the reformatory, had been stabbed 47 times with an icepick.

Williams had lived in the reformatory for four years, since being sent there as punishment after allegedly starting a fire that burned down a barn and for burglarizing a post office when he was 12. Williams was sent to the reform school by Judge W. Roger Fronefield who later joined with a group of business and professional men to create the nation’s first Boys’ Club in Philadelphia out of concerns over the increasing number of juvenile delinquency cases coming before the courts.

At the time of the killing, Williams lived in the same cottage as Robare and was among 40 Black teenagers at the reformatory. Robare, born in Thompson, Mich., had one son and worked with her husband at the Glen Mills School For Boys.

Glen Mills School was founded in 1826 and was the nation’s oldest reform school for boys. It was lauded as a “pathbreaking concept for modernizing failing reform schools in the United States.” In 2014, the U.S. House of Representatives honored Glen Mills for the “life-changing work it does for young men.” In 2019, the school was closed after an investigation disclosed decades-long allegations of physical and sexual abuse.

Robare’s ex-husband, Fred, worked at the school and told police that he found his former wife in bed, partially clothed, with dozens of stab wounds in her chest, a fractured skull, and two broken ribs. An adult’s bloody handprint found on the wall was later examined by two fingerprint experts but was never mentioned at the trial, nor was the fact that the woman had been granted a divorce from her husband on the grounds of “extreme cruelty” and domestic abuse.

Adding to the bias against Williams, he was named on Robare’s death certificate as her murderer days before he was formally arrested. The Chester Times further muddied the incident when it reported three days after the killing that the investigation had focused on a woman as the killer.

“The belief that a woman may have killed ‘pretty’ Mrs. Vida Robare, matron at the Glen Mills School for Boys near Media, who was found beaten and stabbed 38 times in a cottage on the school grounds, was expressed today by District Attorney William J. MacCarter,” the paper reported.

MacCarter was later the prosecutor in the trial and there was no mention of a woman suspect.

A day after the killing, Delaware County’s Chief Detective, Oliver Smith, said he had concluded that the crime “was committed by a full grown and strong man. The woman was unmistakably athletic and could have fought off a boy.”

There were no eyewitnesses to the crime and Williams was convicted on Jan. 7, 1931. After days of coercion without a lawyer or parent present, Williams signed three alleged confessions that he later recanted. The all-white jury of nine men and three women deliberated for four hours and found the youth guilty.

Delaware County Court of Common Pleas Judge W. Roger Fronefield sentenced Williams to death. After the judge handed down the death sentence, Williams shouted in court that he had been promised he would not be executed if he confessed. The boy died in the electric chair five months later, at 7:06 a.m., Monday, June 8, 1931.

Efforts to posthumously exonerate Williams began in 2015 when the grandson of Williams’ lawyer began to research the case. Williams’ conviction was ultimately overturned by a Delaware County judge after District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said the teen’s constitutional rights had been violated. Then-Gov. Tom Wolf apologized on behalf of the state, calling the execution “an egregious miscarriage of justice.”

Williams was arrested decades before the 1963 Supreme Court ruling that guaranteed criminal defendants the right to counsel. He was represented at his trial by William H. Ridley, the son of runaway slaves from Virginia, who became Delaware County’s first Black lawyer in 1891 and the first Black lawyer admitted to the Delaware County Bar Association. Ridley was paid $10 for his work, with no support for investigators or experts while the state’s prosecution was a team of 15 lawyers.

Williams was born on July 23, 1914, to an impoverished family in Chester, Pa. He was one of 13 children and was raised by his illiterate father.

The boy was raised in Cheyney, Pa., a town in Chester County that was founded in the 18th century and named after the farming family that owned nearly 10,000 acres in the area.

Willliams grew up at a time when Pennsylvania was a cauldron of anger, as immigrants flowed into the state seeking work in the burgeoning industrial centers. As ethnic and religious groups poured in, competing for jobs, racist and religious anger festered. The anger expressed and acted out by older white Protestants found a voice in the Ku Klux Klan movement and made Pennsylvania a national center of Klan militancy. At its brief height in the mid-1920s, the Klan had around 250,000 members in Pennsylvania.

At the time of the Robare killing, Black people were pariahs who were banished to their segregated communities. They were unwelcome in many so-called, all-white “sundown towns,” so named because Black people were violently intimidated not to visit after sundown.

Police theorized that Willliams had found Robare in bed reading a novel when he tried to rape her but failed and then stabbed her and beat her with a blunt instrument. Three days later authorities announced that Williams had confessed to the killing after he allegedly rejected Williams’ offer of money to spare her life.

Authorities also claimed that Williams killed the woman in revenge against Fred Robare or because the woman caught him in the act of stealing a box of shoe polish from her house. Days after his arrest, the confession was amended to say that Williams killed Robare because she fought against a rape attempt.

After his execution, relatives claimed the body for burial in an unmarked grave at Green Lawn Cemetery in Chester. A headstone was installed in 2018, after the $850 cost was raised through a GoFundMe crowdfunding effort. The headstone reads, “Executed for a crime he did not commit. Justice deferred is justice denied.”

Many years later, William H. Ridley’s grandson, Dr. Samuel Lemon, wrote about the case in his 2017 book, “The Case That Shocked the Country: The Unquiet Deaths of Vida Robare and Alexander Clay Williams — the Youngest Person in Pennsylvania to Die in the Electric Chair — for A Crime He Did Not Commit.”

In 2022, Lemon presented his research to Delaware County District Attorney Stollsteimer. Stollsteimer arranged for a hearing before Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas Judge Kevin Kelly on June 13, 2022. That same day, Kelly granted a motion to overturn Williams’ conviction and death sentence and granted a new trial because of “numerous fundamental due process violations.” Stollsteimer declined to pursue a new trial and Williams was fully exonerated.

“Sadly, we cannot undo the past. 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,” Stollsteimer said.

The Williams case was hardly unique and was painfully similar to many others. One stands out; the prosecution of George Junius Stinney Jr. A 14-year-old African American boy, Stinney was convicted in March 1944 and executed for killing two young white girls, Betty June Binnicker, 11, and Mary Emma Thames, 8, in Stinney’s hometown of Alcolu, S.C., a tiny mill town in Clarendon County in the heart of Deep South cotton country. He was the youngest American with an exact birth date confirmed to be sentenced to death and executed in the 20th century.

The youngest person ever executed in the U.S. is believed to be Hannah Ocuish, a 12-year old Pequot Native American girl, possibly with an intellectual disability, who was hanged on December 20, 1786, in New London, Conn., for the murder of Eunice Bolles, the 6-year-old daughter of a wealthy farmer. In recent years, Ocuish’s guilt, culpability, and the fairness of her trial have come into question.

The only evidence introduced in the Stinney trial was the unrecorded, unsigned “confession” of the 14-year-old who was deprived of counsel and parental guidance, and whose defense lawyer failed to call witnesses or to preserve his right of appeal.

Several individuals and the Northeastern University School of Law re-examined the case in 2004 and eventually sought a judicial review. The conviction was vacated in 2014 when a South Carolina court ruled that Stinney did not receive a fair trial and was wrongfully executed.

Stinney was a slight boy, standing 5 feet 1 inch and weighing a meager 90–95 pounds. It was deep in the time of Jim Crow laws and Stinney lived in a small home with a chicken coop with his parents and four siblings. His father, George Junius Stinney Sr. worked at the town’s sawmill, and the family lived in company housing, much like the rest of the town’s residents. Typical of small southern towns, the schools and churches were segregated and the black neighborhoods were separated by the town’s railroad tracks.

The bodies of the two girls were found in a ditch on March 23, 1944, on the African American side of Alcolu after the girls did not return home the night before. The girls were beaten to death with a blunt instrument but there was no sign of sexual assault.

According to news reports, a day after the bodies were found, the sheriff announced that “George Junius” had confessed and led officers to “a hidden piece of iron.”

After Stinney’s arrest, his father was fired from his job at the sawmill and the Stinney family had to immediately give up their company housing. Stinney’s parents did not see their son before the trial and he was questioned alone, without his parents or an attorney. Before the trial, Stinney was confined for 81 days at a jail in Columbia, 50 miles from Alcolu.

A March 27, 1944, story in the St. Petersburg Times was headlined “State Prison Protects Negro After Slaying.” The story was placed below the daily “The Funny World” cartoon and next to the “Ration Calendar” of foods rationed because of World War II.

The story reported that the boy “who confessed beating to death two white girls with an iron pipe” was being held in the state prison for his own safety. The youth allegedly confessed to killing the girls “while they were picking wild flowers near the village of Alcolu.”

It reports that Stinney, identified as “George Junius,” “led authorities to the spot in a woods a mile outside the village where he had hidden the death weapons. Remarks he had made after discovery of the bodies led to his arrest.”

Stinney was arrested without a warrant and questioned without a lawyer. The only evidence was the word of the local police chief who said that Stinney had confessed.

The trial was held on April 24, 1944. Stinney’s court-appointed counsel was Charles Plowden, a tax commissioner campaigning for election to local office. Plowden did not challenge the three police officers who testified that Stinney confessed to the two murders, nor did he try to defend Stinney.

The defense lawyer also did not challenge the prosecution’s presentation of two differing versions of Stinney’s alleged, verbal confessions. In one version, Stinney allegedly claimed he was attacked by the girls after he tried to help one girl who had fallen in the ditch, and he killed them in self- defense. In the other version, he had followed the girls and attacked them. There is no written record of Stinney’s confession; only a deputy sheriff’s statement.

The trial lasted all of two and a half hours, while more than 1,000 white Americans crowded the courtroom and no African Americans were allowed. The all-white jury deliberated for less than 10 minutes, finding the boy guilty. Juries were typically all-white in 1944 because most African Americans in the south were disenfranchised and not on the tax rolls and were unavailable to serve on juries.

Judge Philip H. Stoll sentenced Stinney to death by electrocution. Stinney was executed at 7:30 a.m., Friday, June 16, 1944. He sat on a Bible as a booster seat as he was too small for the electric chair. There is no transcript of the trial and no appeal was filed. Stoll later served as a congressman from South Carolina.

Stinney’s family, churches and others in the African American community appealed to Gov. Olin D. Johnston to spare the boy’s life. Johnson refused and visited Stinney in the Death House two days before his execution. On June 14 the governor wrote a response to one appeal for clemency.

“I have just talked with the officer who made the arrest in this case. It may be interesting for you to know that Stinney killed the smaller girl to rape the larger one. Then he killed the larger girl and raped her dead body. Twenty minutes later he returned and attempted to rape her again but her body was too cold. All of this he admitted himself,” Johnston said.

Johnston’s claims were not corroborated by the girls’ autopsies. After his term as governor, Johnston served in the U.S. Senate from 1945 until his death in 1965.

In 2004, George Frierson, a native of Alcolu, local historian and community activist who works at the nearby Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church, started researching the case after reading a newspaper article about it. Other lawyers joined in the research along with the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) at the Northeastern University School of Law.

The newly researched information convinced circuit court Judge Carmen Mullen to vacate the conviction in December 2014, 70 years after the boy was executed. Mullen ruled that Stinney had not received a fair trial, as he was not effectively defended and his Sixth Amendment rights had been violated.

Mullen found that it was “highly likely” that Stinney was coerced into confession to the crimes “due to the power differential between his position as a 14-year-old black male apprehended and questioned by white, uniformed law enforcement in a small, segregated mill town in South Carolina.”

The judge also found that Stinney’s constitutional rights were violated by a lawyer who was the “essence” of ineffectiveness, and by the empaneling of an all-white jury.

Since Stinney’s exoneration, George Washington Burke Jr., the 40-year-old son of a wealthy white businessman, George Burke Sr., has been the subject of speculation as a possible suspect for the murders. George Burke Jr. died in 1947, two to three years after the murders of the two girls. Burke Jr. was 29.

George Burke Sr., was the affluent farm operations manager for the D.W. Alderman and Sons Company, which employed most of the town’s residents. Burke Sr. also led a search party that found the girls’ bodies on property that he owned. He later served as foreman of the coroner’s inquest jury, which found Betty June “came to her death at the hands of George Stinney Jr. and we recommend that he be held for murder.” Burke then served on the grand jury that indicted Stinney and, yet again, as a witness on his indictments for the murders.

Williams and Stinney were both tried before the U.S. Supreme Court had expanded constitutional protections for criminal defendants, including setting standards to determine if a lawyer has been effective; making it easier to prove racial discrimination in jury selection; and barring execution of those who were minors at the time of the crime.

While there has been improvement in constitutional protections for all Americans, Blacks still make up one third of all those on death row around the country. A Black defendant convicted of killing a white person is nearly10 times as likely to be sentenced to death as a white convicted of killing a Black person.

An October 2016 report by the National Registry of Exonerations showed that African Americans are only 13 percent of the American population, yet they were 47 percent of the 1,900 exonerations listed in the registry and the great majority of more than 1,800 additional innocent defendants who were framed and convicted of crimes in 15 large-scale police scandals and later cleared in “group exonerations.”

The report noted that the main reason for the racial disproportion in convictions of innocent drug defendants is that police enforce drug laws more vigorously against African Americans than against members of the white majority, despite strong evidence that both groups use drugs at equivalent rates. African Americans are more frequently stopped, searched, arrested, and convicted, including in cases in which they are innocent.

By February 2020, a total of 2,551 people were exonerated since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. The exonerated people spent a total of 22,540 years in prison before they were released or died in prison and were exonerated posthumously. By 2020, 20 individuals had been exonerated while on death row through DNA evidence.

The registry does not include more than 1,800 defendants cleared in 15 large-scale police scandals that came to light between 1989 and March 7, 2017, in which officers systematically framed innocent defendants.

This list of wrongful convictions in the United States includes people who have been legally exonerated, including people whose convictions have been overturned or vacated, and who have not been retried because the charges were dismissed by the states. It also includes some historic cases of people who have not been formally exonerated (by a formal process such as has existed in the United States since the mid 20th century) but who historians believe are factually innocent. Generally, this means that research by historians has revealed original conditions of bias or extrajudicial actions that related to their convictions and/or executions.

The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the University of Michigan Law School, Michigan State University College of Law and the University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science and Society. The Registry was co-founded in 2012 with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law to provide detailed information about known exonerations in the United States since 1989.

The National Registry of Exonerations is the largest and most detailed compilation of exoneration data ever made.

The first people listed as exonerated were Dominic Daley and James Halligan. They were executed on Nov. 13, 1805, the day after their arrests. On St. Patrick’s Day 1984, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation exonerating Daley and Halligan.

In November 1805, the body of a young farmer, Marcus Lyon, was discovered on the road near the town of Wilbraham, Mass. Daley and Halligan, both Irish immigrants, were traveling in the area when they were arrested for the murder. Their captor collected a $500 reward.

Daley and Halligan were confined for an extended period and were not granted defense lawyers until 48 hours before their trial. At trial, both were convicted within minutes and executed the next day. It was obvious that they were a victim of bigotry rampant at the time against Irish immigrants.

The last listing involved Aaron Culberton, a 16-year-old man who was charged on Feb. 14, 2018, with aggravated robbery. He served eight years in prison in Canton, Ohio, before he was released after evidence surfaced showing that two other people had committed the robbery. The state dismissed the charge in December 2022 and Culbertson was released.