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



  1. isaac brown

    Thanks for the blog mr. Grimsley I wanted to know could you give me some information or direction to getting my brothers conviction reduced. He was convicted of murder and i feel he should have been guilty of manslaughter if anything. He had a fight with a white man in Alabama and ended up killing him. Mind you he was struck first. So if you can point me in some direction i would appreciate it. Thank You

  2. Devin C.

    Thank You for the Info be sure to share it with more people.

  3. Kevin Bew Sr.

    We could never account for how many blacks that were wrongfully convicted. Just know the one is too many.

  4. Michelle Muhlestein

    My 16 year old son is being accused right now of raping one of his best friends. Although we have turned in so much proof showing that she invited him to her house atleast 10 times after the so called “rape” and text messages from her saying she wanted to have sex again, the prosecution is still leaning towards charging him. He is an all state athlete, great kid, has a huge heart and everyone loves him. This girl did not tell her parents anything until 2 months later when my son did not go to her birthday party and started dating someone. Then two days after her birthday she told her parents he had raped her. She is all over social media saying his name and that he raped her and details. My son states it was consensual. Which we have proof it was by her texts. I am extremely disgusted in our judicial system. Thing is she is white, my son is black and we live in Utah. Its like the prosecution is already stating that he is guilty before he is even charged and when they have so much proof sitting right in front of him. There is no protection for an innocent young man who is being falsely accused. I am so worried about my son.. Any advice would be so appreciated.

  5. Amy R.

    This is a very important topic. I have been doing some unrelated research about the 1920s and reading a lot of newspapers. In addition to the horrible lynchings, which I knew something about, there are so many stories of executions of black men occurring very quickly after trials in which the evidence seems slight at best. The mainstream newspapers don’t question this at all. The line between these executions and lynchings is very thin. Some numbers are now offered of approximately how many lynchings occurred between Reconstruction and the 1930s, but I have never seen any estimates about the number of wrongful executions of black men during that time. From my casual reading, my sense is that the number would be very, very high.

  6. debbie

    Hi I need some direction my son defended himself and now they’re trying to charge him with a felony. We don’t have money for a paid lawyer. He’s 36 never been in any trouble we live in California. The law clearly says when your afraid for your life you can protect yourself so how is the DA able to charge him anyway. He’s not a criminal I wasn’t there but was on the phone when the man came up to him. Please help my son is so depressed he just has no fight left but I can’t see him railroaded. . Please direct asap

  7. Shulonder Witherspoon

    I need help with a case for my son who was wrongfully convicted. PLEASE CAN SOMEONE HELP ME.

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