Pardon sought for Black man who was executed in 1908 for a murder that is still being debated

Joe James, a black man, was sleeping under a tree when he was grabbed, beaten, and arrested for murdering a white man in Springfield, Illinois.

Before he was put on trial and later executed, a mob of whites seeking revenge for the crime James was accused of committing took out their hatred and anger against other blacks in the state capital.

During the 1908 race riots, black-owned businesses and homes were looted and set on fire. At least two other black men were lynched weeks before an all-white jury convened in the aftermath of the violence found James guilty, according to a legal team that petitioned for clemency 114 years after the facts. They claim: The jury was racially biased and James didn’t get a fair trial.

The riots and their aftermath spurred the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People a year later.

Steve Drizin, co-director of Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, said, “The passage of time and the destruction of evidence made it impossible to conclusively prove James’ innocence, so the fact that James was “Innocence on the ground is not the focus of this petition,” he said.

Boston’s Wrongful Conviction Center and the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University School of Law filed petitions for an administrative pardon this month. .

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A review board can then recommend a pardon to Governor JB Pritzker. If successful, the posthumous lawsuit would be his third pardon in Illinois in the past decade, following recent pardons elsewhere in the United States.

James was accused of entering Clergy Ballard’s home in July 1908 when Ballard’s 16-year-old daughter awoke to find a man sitting in her bed. According to reports at the time, Ballard caught a man outside his home and was stabbed and cut during the struggle.

James was arrested hours later and locked up in the county jail, where he joined the following month with another black man, George Richardson, who was accused of sexually assaulting a white woman.

Threats to both men by white residents prompted authorities to move them to prisons outside Sangamon County. An enraged white mob passed judgment on the town’s black residents.

At least eight white people died in the violence and more than 100 were injured, most of them by members of the state’s militia or each other, according to the petition, which cited news stories of the time. It is unknown if he died of injuries.

Sculptures representing charred chimneys rising from the smoldering rubble of a charred building that make up Preston Jackson’s 100th anniversary memorial entitled Acts of Intolerance, March 22, 2023 in Springfield, Illinois . The Illinois Prisoners’ Review Board is considering a posthumous pardon for Joe James, who was charged with murder in 1908. (AP Photo/John O’Connor)

The white mob first set fire to the restaurant where the white owner used his car to transport James and Richardson from Sangamon County Jail. Today, a restaurant run by a black woman, Cadesia Berkeley, stands on the site of the restaurant.

James appeared before a jury in Sangamon County after a judge refused to move the trial to another county. said in a release.

On October 23, 1908, just two months after the riot, James was hanged in the Sangamon County Jail. The white mob was acquitted of their role in the lynching and destruction.

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Margaret Burnham, founder of the Northeastern civil rights movement, said, “Throughout history, white jurors have not only convicted and executed black men and women of scant evidence, but also found guilty overwhelmingly guilty.” I have seen them acquit whites who murder blacks in the face of strong evidence.” restorative justice project. “This double standard worked in his 1908 Springfield, infecting Springfield’s criminal justice system and depriving James of a fair trial.”

In 2020, the site of a riot near downtown Springfield was added to the National Park Service’s African American Civil Rights Network.

Granting a posthumous pardon does not break new ground, the petition said.

In 2014, then-Illinois Governor Pat Quinn pardoned three white abolitionists convicted of helping runaway slaves in the 1840s. Five years after that, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner pardoned Thompson, a black man who was wrongly convicted of murdering a white woman in 1981.

Nine black men wrongfully accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931 are one of the most notable cases of acquittal. The “Scottsboro Boys” were convicted by an all-white jury. All but the youngest defendant were sentenced to death. In 1937, five convictions were overturned after one of her victims recanted her story. Each person was eventually released. Clarence Norris (Clarence Norris) was pardoned by the Governor of Alabama in 1976. The rest received a posthumous pardon in 2013.

An amnesty like this means the world to the relatives of those falsely accused and convicted, said Osceola Perdue. She was the niece of Alexander MacRae Williams, a 16-year-old black man who was convicted and executed for the murder of a white man in 1931 by an all-white jury. She is the principal of a boys’ school in Delaware County, Pennsylvania.

Williams signed a murder confession, but later retracted it. Charges against Williams were dismissed last June after the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office said there was no direct evidence, and no witnesses, implicating Williams in the killing.

“It was very sad to find out that he was only 16 and they didn’t care as long as he convicted someone,” Perdue told the Associated Press. has convicted a child who knows he did not do this.”


Perdue, 56, said her father first told her the tragic story of her brother when she was eight years old.

“I later found out that my grandmother didn’t believe she did it,” Perdue said. “My grandmother went to her deathbed knowing her child had gone to her electric chair.”

Williams’ sister, Susie Carter, described his pardon as “uplifting.”

“It meant a really big deal to me,” Carter, 93, of Chester, Pennsylvania, said Wednesday. My mother would say my brother didn’t kill the woman.”

“My brother’s blood must have screamed from the ground,” she said. “That state killed my brother.”

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