United States: Executed for murder at 16, a black teenager cleared 91 years later

Published on June 17, 2022 at 8:30 am

Executed in the electric chair in 1931, Alexander McClay Williams was cleared 91 years later – © Getty Images

Alexander McClay Williams is the youngest boy to face the death penalty in the state of Pennsylvania. He had signed a confession after interrogations conducted without parents or lawyers present.

He had been sentenced to death for murder and executed at 16: 91 years later, a Pennsylvania court this week recognized the innocence of Alexander McClay Williams, giving justice to this African-American and his only surviving sister, 92 years old.

“I’m just glad it’s ending the way it should have started,” Susie Williams-Carter, the teen’s sister, was quoted by The Philadelphia Inquirer as saying on Thursday. “We knew he was innocent, now we want everyone to know.”

“We cannot rewrite history. But when justice can be served, by publicly acknowledging such a mistake, we must seize the opportunity,” said Delaware County, Pennsylvania District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer.

White Jury

“This decision is recognition that the charges against him should never have been,” added the prosecutor, recalling that the teenager, executed on February 27, 1931, remained the youngest boy in the history of Pennsylvania to face the death penalty.

On October 3, 1930, the ex-husband of Vida Robare, a white head of the Glen Mills School for Boys, a detention center for young delinquents, had found the body of his wife, “brutally murdered” in her chalet, in the enclosure of the establishment, recalls the office of the prosecutor.

Quickly charged, 16-year-old Alexander McClay Williams was serving a sentence at the facility at the time. He had signed confessions three times, during five interrogations conducted without the presence of a lawyer or a relative, “despite the absence of eyewitnesses or direct evidence”.

William Ridley, his later appointed attorney, the county bar’s first African American, had no resources to prepare for trial. And “the accused faced an all-white jury, which found him guilty in less than four hours,” continues the prosecutor’s office.

Exculpatory evidence ignored

Jack Stollsteimer pays tribute to the “relentless, for years” work of the boy’s sister and the lawyer’s great-grandson to show “the inconsistencies” of the file, as elements that can exculpate the accused but ignored.

The prosecutor cites this “bloody handprint of an adult male found near the door to the crime scene, photographed by the police” but “never mentioned at trial”. Or the existence of another suspect, the former husband of Vida Robare, from whom she had obtained a divorce “for ‘extreme cruelty'”.

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