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African American Wrongful Convictions Throughout History

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Posted: February 28, 2013   4:35 PM

By 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


Jordan says:
Mar 01, 2015 03:23 PM

I am trying to find statistics that reveal roughly how many African American's were imprisoned falsely or with precedent during the racist periods of American history. Does anyone have any information they can point me towards? Much appreciated!

Jordan (Also commented above) says:
Mar 01, 2015 03:23 PM

Please email me at if you have any information in this regard, thank you very much!!!!

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Apr 24, 2015 02:36 PM

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Apr 24, 2015 02:40 PM

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Apr 24, 2015 02:44 PM

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blass says:
Apr 27, 2015 08:33 PM

police officers need to be careful because to many black have dead

thegrammarnazi says:
Nov 02, 2015 01:33 PM


blass says:
Apr 27, 2015 08:34 PM

police officers need to be careful because to many black have dead

Your mom says:
Jun 10, 2015 10:34 AM

Please read what you said outloud

mooooooo says:
Nov 10, 2015 05:22 PM

too not to

Anonymous says:
Apr 27, 2015 08:34 PM


Anonymous says:
Apr 27, 2015 08:35 PM


jackie carpenter says:
May 18, 2015 11:55 AM

we talk about people civil rights been violated but there is no help for the poor im in of help I was gave an all white jury an impartial I appel my case and now im on federal ground needing help with 2254 federal heabes corpus that icant get no help with iask the naacp no vail legal lone aidof texas no vail all these agenices will not help the poor blacks with there civil rights that that have been violated we need on federal ground

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deez nuts says:
Oct 29, 2015 11:15 PM

people just need to quit using their skin color as a crutch and an excuse to act like idiots. There is no racial problem in america. there was in fact a racial problem but it just boils down to blacks and whites being able to accept the fact that you will be below a person of a different skin color at some point in your life whether he be your boss or a police officer or even your judge the fact of the matter is slavery and segregation is over and no one in this era has and ever will be exposed to either of them. SO get off your butt and find purpose in your life and quit using skin color as a excuse for your failure.

Jimmy Avila says:
Nov 22, 2015 01:25 PM

Hi my name is Jimmy Avila and I'm a victim of racial profiling and my friend have been wrongfully convicted in NYCI'm going to trail on January 8, 2015 at Bronx County

I will love to expose the current corruption in the crimal justice system
You Searched On Defendant Jimmy Avila

County Bronx

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2015BX032675 Avila, Jimmy

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for more information please call me 718-503-8012

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