In the second series of African American Lives, Henry Louis Gates found that radio host Tom Joyner’s maternal great uncles had been executed in South Carolina in 1915. They were convicted of murdering 73-year-old John Q. Lewis, a white Confederate veteran. Not surprisingly, the trial was a total sham.
The first suspect and main prosecution witness, John “Monk” Stevenson, was found with Lewis’ knife and he told police where to find Lewis’ missing watch. Stevenson later admitted that he had accused Tom and Meeks Griffin because since they owned land, they’d be able to afford a decent defense.
They had to sell their 130 acres of land to afford a lawyer, and then were given a mere day to prepare their defense against capital murder charges.
Even after their trial, white members of the community came to their defense. Magistrates, business leaders, former sheriffs and the mayor of their town all signed a petition to the governor asking him to commute their sentence. Even the judge who heard their case signed it, adding, “I heard this case and I don’t think I could have given a verdict of guilty.”
But then-governor Richard Manning allowed the sentence to stand and the Griffin brothers were executed in the state’s electric chair on September 29, 1915.
Stevenson got a life sentence for throwing the Griffins and two other men under the bus.
Joyner had never heard of his great uncles before Gates told him about them. His family left South Carolina after the execution, and never looked back. Once he heard the story, he decided to work for a posthumous pardon, something that has never been granted in a capital case.
Until now. On Wednesday, South Carolina’s Parole and Pardons board unanimously voted to pardon Thomas and Meeks Griffin.
Here’s the first part of the segment of African American Lives 2 where Joyner hears about his great uncles. I couldn’t find the rest of it online, I’m afraid. You can find a summary of Gates’ findings on Joyner’s geneology here.