UPDATE: South Carolina Pardons Joyner’s Ancestors

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UPDATE:

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Two great-uncles of syndicated radio host Tom Joyner, sent to the electric chair for the 1913 murder of a Confederate Army veteran, were unanimously pardoned Wednesday by South Carolina.

Officials believe the men are the first in the state to be posthumously pardoned in a capital murder case.

Black landowners Thomas and Meeks Griffin were executed 94 years ago after a jury convicted them of killing 73-year-old John Lewis, a wealthy white veteran living in Blackstock, a Chester County town 40 miles north of Columbia. Two other black men were also put to death for the crime.

“This won’t bring them back, but this will bring closure. I hope now that they rest in peace,” Joyner said. “This is a good day.”

Joyner, who lives in Dallas, and his attorney made a presentation to the state parole and probation board on Wednesday, then left the room while the board voted. Family members who flew in for the hearing included his wife and sons, of Dallas, and brother and his family, from Jackson, Miss.

Though he talks to roughly 8 million listeners on the radio daily, Joyner said facing the seven board members “scared me to death.” When he was told how they voted, he said he waved his hands and hugged family members in a flood of relief and joy. He also called in to his radio show.

Joyner learned about his uncles’ fate two years ago during filming of the PBS documentary “African American Lives 2,” which traced his lineage and 11 others’ through the research of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Watch the interview with Tom Joyner as he recounts the journey that led to the pardon

The talk show host, Gates and legal historian Paul Finkelman then began to work to clear the Griffins’ names because records indicated they were framed by another man who was linked to the victim’s stolen pistol, but claimed he was only the lookout.

“These were hardworking, outstanding community citizens,” Joyner said, noting the family owned about 130 acres. “Out of nowhere it seems, they were accused of murder.”

John “Monk” Stevenson, who was known to be a small-time thief, testified against the others in exchange for a life sentence. According to sworn statements, he later told fellow inmates and a detective the four men had nothing to do with the crime, but he pointed his finger at them to save himself.

Stevenson told at least one inmate he chose the Griffin brothers because he thought they were wealthy and could afford a lawyer.

The Griffins had to sell their land to pay for their defense. After the execution, Joyner’s grandmother fled to Florida, but did not say why. Joyner said even his father knew nothing of his uncles until Gates uncovered the family secret.

The case was about class and economics as much as race, Gates said.

“They were framed because they were the richest black people in the county,” he said. “I as a historian am honored to see something rectified in the present.”

Gates believes an illicit affair and the desire to protect the elderly veteran’s reputation also played roles in his uncles’ indictment.

Records show police initially focused on Anna Davis, a black woman Lewis was reportedly intimate with. Anna and her husband Bart Davis were arrested with their suitcases packed. A neighbor and an employee of Lewis said they saw Bart Davis at Lewis’ home the morning of his death, and Stevenson initially said he got the gun from Bart Davis’ brother.

The four were indicted July 6, 1913, and the trial began two days later. With only a day to prepare, defense attorney W.H. Newbold asked for a delay, but the request was denied. The state Supreme Court later deemed that denial insignificant.

When appeals failed, Newbold asked the governor for a pardon hearing. Some white residents in Chester County agreed.

More than 120 people signed a petition asking then-Gov. Richard Manning to commute the men’s sentence, including Blackstock’s mayor, a former sheriff, two trial jurors and the grand jury foreman. Manning gave the four a temporary reprieve while he considered it, but ultimately the four were sent to the death chamber.

The pardon is not only a family victory, but a step toward the healing of racism nationally, Joyner said. Finkelman, an Albany Law School professor, said the Griffin brothers stand for thousands unjustly convicted. He plans to do more research on the case and possibly write a book.

Gates said it’s exciting that an interracial coalition existed in both the 1915 effort to save the Griffins’ life and in their pardon Wednesday.

“Racism is alive,” Joyner said. “We can’t move forward until we confront the past.”

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Nationally syndicated radio host Tom Joyner is asking South Carolina to posthumously pardon two of his great-uncles — black landowners executed in 1915 after being convicted of murdering an elderly Confederate Army veteran.

Joyner learned the fate of farmers Thomas and Meeks Griffin during filming of the PBS documentary “African American Lives 2,” which first aired in February 2008 and was based on research by Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The program traces the lineage of 12 people, including Joyner. The host of “The Tom Joyner Morning Show” said he was stunned to learn of his South Carolina roots and two great-uncles he didn’t know existed.

“The records will show they did not do what they were executed for, and maybe now they can rest in peace,” Joyner said from his Dallas studio.
He said a pardon would bring long-overdue justice, adding “I started trying to put myself in my great-uncles’ position and tried to imagine what they must’ve been going through.”

The Griffins were forced to sell their 130 acres to finance their defense. After they died in the electric chair on Sept. 29, 1915, Joyner’s grandmother moved to Florida, where the family’s known history begins.

“It’s very unusual for stories like this to be passed down from generation to generation among African-Americans,” Joyner said. “As a people, we don’t like to pass along bad news about family.”

In June 2008, Joyner, Gates and legal historian Paul Finkelman wrote Gov. Mark Sanford seeking a pardon. The case is scheduled Oct. 14 before the state’s parole and pardon board.

If a pardon were granted, it would be South Carolina’s first awarded posthumously in a capital murder case, said Pete O’Boyle, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.

Court documents show the Griffin brothers were executed with two other black men for the April 1913 shooting death of John Lewis, 73. Lewis was a wealthy veteran living in Blackstock, a Chester County town 40 miles north of Columbia.

The four were indicted July 6, 1913, and the trial began two days later. With only a day to prepare, defense attorney W.H. Newbold asked for a delay, but the request was denied. The state Supreme Court later deemed that denial insignificant.

Finkelman said such speedy trials were apparently once the norm and the quick trial wasn’t necessarily racially motivated — but it was unfair.

Joyner believes his uncles were framed.

Records show police initially focused on Anna Davis, a black woman Lewis was reportedly intimate with. She and husband Bart Davis were arrested with their suitcases packed. But attention later shifted when Lewis’ stolen pistol was traced to John “Monk” Stevenson, a small-time criminal who first said he got the gun from Bart Davis’ brother.

He claimed he was only a lookout when Lewis was killed. In a plea deal that spared his life, Stevenson — who is also black — named the Griffin brothers and the two others and testified against them. He later received a life sentence.

According to sworn statements, Stevenson told people in jail the four men he implicated knew nothing of the crime, but he named them to save himself.

When appeals failed, Newbold asked the governor for a pardon hearing.
Some white residents in Chester County agreed.

More than 120 people signed a petition to then-Gov. Richard Manning declaring “grave doubts as to their guilt” and requesting a reduced sentence. The signatures included people identified as Blackstock’s mayor, a former sheriff, two trial jurors and the grand jury foreman.

A former detective wrote that information was withheld from the defense, and that Stevenson also told him the four convicted had nothing to do with the murder.

Finkelman, an Albany Law School professor, called the petition astonishing. In his decades studying Southern history, this is the first time he’s seen petitions signed by prominent white residents in support of a black man accused of murdering a white man.

“It just didn’t happen,” he said. “The nature of South Carolina in 1900 was, if a black man was arrested for a crime like this, you could be pretty sure they’d be convicted and executed, and nobody would care.”

Still, hundreds of residents signed petitions asking the governor to dismiss appeals for clemency and urging execution.

But the signatures of support show “everybody wasn’t unfair,” said Joyner, who grew up in Tuskegee, Ala. “It says something about the history of racism in South Carolina that everybody wasn’t like that back then.”

Nearly a century later, it’s impossible to determine who did commit the murder, according to Joyner, Gates and Finkelman.
While a pardon isn’t an apology, it means if the men were tried today, they likely wouldn’t be convicted, said Joyner’s attorney, Steve Benjamin.

“It was a sad period in our state’s history and probably not uncommon,” he said. “It doesn’t undo what happened. It does allow the state to put its best foot forward.”

Joyner said learning the family secret has changed his life.

“It’s been mind-opening. When I see when and how far people have gone before me, it makes me stronger.” He added, “There are probably so many stories like this that will never come to light, and their cases will never be heard.”

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