A Pardon 94 Years Too Late

October 16, 2009

Wednesday, Oct. 14, radio host Tom Joyner became the first person to obtain a posthumous pardon for unjust executions in South Carolina.  South Carolina is a typical gung-ho executing Southern state, so this achievement was no small feat.  Joyner obtained the pardon on behalf of two great uncles, Thomas and Meeks Griffin, who in 1915 were wrongfully put to death for the 1913 murder of a white Civil War veteran in Blackstock, SC.  Joyner only found out about this tragic episode because of his participation in African American Lives 2, a 2006 PBS show that traced the ancestries of prominent African Americans.

While Joyner was understandably shocked and motivated to action by this revelation of his family history, the story of what happened in South Carolina 94 years ago is eerily familiar to what goes on in capital punishment in America today.  Certainly, wrongful death sentences and executions (as the Cameron Todd Willingham case definitively demonstrates) are still with us.  The Griffin brothers were framed for the murder by the actual killer, as was the case in John Grisham’s non-fiction study The Innocent Man, and as seems likely to have been the case with Troy Davis. And, as is the case today, legal costs were devastating; the Griffins had to sell off their considerable land holdings (130 acres) to pay for their lawyer.

Of course there are important differences. With the judge’s approval, the trial began just two days after the indictment, a practice that would never occur today, and which made organizing an effective defense impossible.  Appeals courts failed to address this fundamental injustice.  But, as often happens today, a petition campaign to save the lives of the Griffin brothers was organized, as doubts about their guilt began to surface.  According to the AP story cited above

“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.”

This multiracial effort was to no avail as the Governor, though he delayed, ultimately approved the executions.  Those of us who follow the death penalty know that low expectations for executive clemency have changed little in the intervening 90+ years.

Which makes one wonder; what cases today, on which our current crop of governors and judges fail to take action, will draw posthumous pardons 90+ years from now, as the 21st century draws to a close.