News 02.28.13

African American Wrongful Convictions Throughout History


Edwin Grimsley

, Case Analyst



Editor’s Note: In honor of Black History Month, we present a two-part series examining historical wrongful conviction cases of African-Americans and highlighting stories of racial injustice, both then and now.


Racially disparate treatment has permeated the United States criminal justice system throughout history. During the Jim Crow era, blacks were legally barred from voter rolls in several southern states and were therefore barred from serving on juries. In this era of racial strife, the police, prosecution, defense attorneys, judges and jurors were almost always white. Cross-racial misidentifications, forced confessions, all-white juries, and blatant racism led to the wrongful convictions of countless innocent black people.


Between the 1870’s and 1960’s, a significant number of black defendant/ white victim allegations never made it to trial. The Tuskegee Institute Archive estimates approximately 3,500 lynching deaths of blacks. How many of the lynched were actually innocent will forever be a mystery.


The presumption of innocence barely arose in the case of

Ed Johnson

, arrested for sexually assaulting a white female in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1906. The victim was allegedly knocked unconscious with a leather strap. Johnson became a suspect when a witness claimed that he saw him carrying a leather strap, though Johnson denied owning one. Johnson provided numerous alibi witnesses at trial. Nevertheless, he was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to death. While the U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay of execution, a mob broke through the jail and brutally murdered Johnson in a public hanging. Johnson’s tombstone reflects his professed innocence, “God Bless you all. I AM a Innocent Man.” In February 2000, his conviction was finally posthumously overturned.


A quarter century later, the

Scottsboro Boys

convictions raised public awareness about racial injustice and galvanized the Civil Rights Movement. In 1931, a fight occurred between black and white boys on a freight train traveling through the town of Scottsboro, Alabama. The police rounded up all black boys riding on the train and ultimately arrested nine black boys, ranging in ages from 12 to 19 years old. Two white girls then came forward alleging that they were gang raped on the train. All nine defendants claimed innocence. After four separate one-day trials with all-white juries, eight of the nine were convicted and sentenced to death. 


Their appeals would last over 20 years. On re-trial, one of the rape victims testified that the rape was fabricated, yet all-white juries again returned guilty verdicts. In the end, after facing multiple re-trials, all of the Scottsboro boys had their convictions dropped or were sentenced to lesser charges. The

Alabama Legislature

recently introduced a bill to posthumously exonerate the nine Scottsboro Boys.


Meanwhile, a landmark Supreme Court decision in the

Brown v. Mississippi

case addressed concerns about confessions obtained through violence. In 1934, after a white farmer was killed in Mississippi, three black sharecroppers were arrested for the crime.

Ed Brown, Arthur Ellington, and Henry Shields

were all beaten and tortured into confessing. Even more ludicrous, the police did not dispute torturing the defendants, who appeared visibly in pain as they sat through their trial. An all-white jury convicted the three and sentenced them to death by hanging. In 1936, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the convictions, arguing that coerced confessions cannot constitute evidence in a court of law. This historic ruling paved the way for the Miranda rulings to come decades later. Ellington, Shields and Brown were never fully exonerated because they took short plea deals for fear of facing another unjust re-trial.


Black women were also subjected to the same unequal treatment in the criminal justice system. In 1945, the state of Georgia executed

Lena Baker

for killing a white man who had kidnapped and assaulted her. She claimed that she had shot him in self defense. Baker was convicted by a jury of white men and became the only woman ever executed by electrocution in Georgia. In 2005, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles granted Baker a pardon saying that the state had committed a grievous error.


Finally, wrongful convictions based on racial bias were not just a Southern phenomenon. In 1948, the “Scottsboro Boys of the North,” also known as the

Trenton 6

, were arrested for the killing of a white furniture store owner in Trenton, New Jersey. Witness descriptions of the assailants ranged from “two to three black men” to “two to four light-skinned teenagers.” The six black men who were arrested did not match the descriptions. Five of the Trenton 6 signed inconsistent confessions, which they maintained at trial were coerced. All provided rock-solid alibis. Nonetheless, an all-white jury convicted the Trenton 6 and sentenced them to death. On appeal, their convictions were overturned due to weak evidence and the perjury of the medical examiner. After multiple re-trials, four of the Trenton 6 were acquitted, and two were found guilty of lesser sentences.


These cases, and many others, showcase decades of racial bias in the criminal justice system. Because media reports and public outrage expose only the most prominent wrongful convictions, we will never know how many innocent African-Americans were falsely convicted or executed. My part-two blog post will illustrate similarities of these historical injustices to contemporary stories of DNA exonerations of African-Americans.



with research assistance from Communications Intern Angel Whitaker


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  1. Irma Lake-Martin says:

    That work you do is admirable and we need to know more about these cases and your work

  2. Rhonda Marshall says:

    Here is why they’re being incarcerated and why we don’t do anything to stop it! ….In 1866, one year after the 13 Amendment was ratified (the amendment that ended slavery), Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee, and South Carolina began to lease out convicts for labor (peonage). This made the business of arresting Blacks very lucrative, which is why hundreds of White men were hired by these states as police officers. Their primary responsibility was to search out and arrest Blacks who were in violation of Black Codes. Once arrested, these men, women and children would be leased to plantations where they would harvest cotton, tobacco and sugar cane. Or they would be leased to work at coal mines or railroad companies. The owners of these businesses would pay the state for every prisoner who worked for them; prison labor.

    It is believed that after the passing of the 13th Amendment, more than 800,000 Blacks were part of the system of peonage, or re-enslavement through the prison system. Peonage didn’t end until after World War II began, around 1940.

    This is how it happened.

    The 13th Amendment declared that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” (Ratified in 1865)

    Did you catch that? It says, “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude could occur except as a punishment for a crime”. Lawmakers used this phrase to make petty offenses crimes. When Blacks were found guilty of committing these crimes, they were imprisoned and then leased out to the same businesses that lost slaves after the passing of the 13th Amendment. This system of convict labor is called peonage.

    The majority of White Southern farmers and business owners hated the 13th Amendment because it took away slave labor. As a way to appease them, the federal government turned a blind eye when southern states used this clause in the 13th Amendment to establish laws called Black Codes. Here are some examples of Black Codes:

    In Louisiana, it was illegal for a Black man to preach to Black congregations without special permission in writing from the president of the police. If caught, he could be arrested and fined. If he could not pay the fines, which were unbelievably high, he would be forced to work for an individual, or go to jail or prison where he would work until his debt was paid off.

    If a Black person did not have a job, he or she could be arrested and imprisoned on charges of vagrancy or loitering.

    This next Black Code will make you cringe. In South Carolina, if the parent of a Black child was considered vagrant, the judicial system allowed the police and/or other government agencies to “apprentice” the child to an “employer”. Males could be held until the age of 21, and females could be held until they were 18. Their owner had the legal right to inflict punishment on the child for disobedience, and to recapture them if they ran away.

    This (peonage) is an example of systemic racism – Racism established and perpetuated by government systems. Slavery was made legal by the U.S. Government. Segregation, Black Codes, Jim Crow and peonage were all made legal by the government, and upheld by the judicial system. These acts of racism were built into the system, which is where the term “Systemic Racism” is derived.

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