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An African American inmate sits on a bed in a prison cell, looking out through the bars with an expression of deep sorrow and despair. Light from a small window casts shadows in the cell.
An emotional scene depicting an African American inmate in a prison cell highlighting the deep sorrow and despair caused by wrongful convictions

Black Teen Wrongfully Executed in 1931, Family Sues for Damages

By Darius Spearman (africanelements)

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The family of Alexander McClay Williams has filed a lawsuit against Delaware County. They are seeking unspecified punitive damages nearly 100 years after the wrongful conviction and execution of the 16-year-old Black teenager in 1931. (SOURCE: Family of Black teen executed in Pennsylvania file lawsuit nearly 100 years after his death)

Wrongful Conviction and Execution

In October 1930, authorities accused Williams of brutally stabbing his teacher, 34-year-old Vida Robare, at the Glen Mills School for Boys in Delaware County. (SOURCE: Wrongful conviction lawsuit announced against Delaware County after 16-year-old executed in 1930) An all-white jury convicted Williams after just four hours of deliberation. Moreover, they based the conviction on three coerced confessions that didn’t match the crime scene. This despite a lack of physical evidence connecting him to the crime. (SOURCE: Pennsylvania Teen Exonerated 91 Years After Sham Trial and Execution on Racially Motivated Charges that He Had Murdered a White Woman)

“There is no way you can erase what happened to your family when you were wrongfully convicted, so I hope nothing like this happens again,” said Susie Carter, Williams’ only living sibling. (SOURCE: Wrongful conviction lawsuit announced against Delaware County after 16-year-old executed in 1930)

The state executed Williams in the electric chair on June 8, 1931. Consequently, he became the youngest person ever put to death in Pennsylvania. Additionally, no one filed appeals on his behalf. (SOURCE: Pennsylvania Teen Exonerated 91 Years After Sham Trial and Execution on Racially Motivated Charges that He Had Murdered a White Woman)

Decades-Long Fight for Exoneration

For decades, Williams’ family maintained his innocence. Furthermore, they fought to clear his name. In 2015, Sam Lemon, the great-grandson of Williams’ trial attorney, began researching the case. As a result, he uncovered evidence of the teen’s innocence. (SOURCE: After 91 years, the murder conviction of a Delaware County teen has been overturned)

In June 2022, the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas vacated Williams’ conviction. The court found “numerous fundamental due process violations” in the original trial. Subsequently, the local district attorney dismissed the charges, effectively exonerating Williams 91 years after his execution. (SOURCE: Pennsylvania Teen Exonerated 91 Years After Sham Trial and Execution on Racially Motivated Charges that He Had Murdered a White Woman)

Lawsuit Seeks Justice and Compensation

In May 2024, Williams’ family filed a lawsuit against Pennsylvania and Delaware County. They are seeking damages for his wrongful conviction and death. (SOURCE: Family of teen executed in Pa. brings lawsuit nearly 100 years after his death)

No amount can undo the injustice suffered by Williams and his family. Nevertheless, they hope the lawsuit will bring some measure of accountability. Additionally, they want to prevent similar tragedies. As one relative stated, “I found out about this case 60 years ago when I was a child…I really wanted to set the story straight.” (SOURCE: Descendants of wrongly executed Black teen ask Delaware County to not put his name on building)

The Haunting History of Wrongful Convictions in the U.S.

Wrongful convictions have plagued the American justice system throughout its history. In 1923, Judge Learned Hand made an observation. He stated that the U.S. legal system “has always been haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted.” (SOURCE: Wrongful Conviction in the American Judicial Process) This haunting reality persists today. Consequently, thousands of innocent people have been imprisoned and even executed.

Early Cases and the Innocence Movement

Some wrongful conviction cases date back to the early 20th century. One example is the infamous conviction and execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for murder in 1920. (SOURCE: List of wrongful convictions in the United States – Wikipedia) However, serious study of the issue didn’t begin until 1932. In that year, Yale professor Edwin Borchard published “Convicting the Innocent.” (SOURCE: Wrongful Conviction in the American Judicial Process)

A groundbreaking 1987 article by Bedau and Radelet started the modern “innocence revolution.” The article documented 350 wrongful convictions, 23 of which led to executions. (SOURCE: Wrongful Conviction in the American Judicial Process) This coincided with the introduction of DNA testing in the late 1980s. Subsequently, DNA evidence led to the first exoneration of prisoner Gary Dotson in 1989. (SOURCE: Wrongful Conviction in the American Judicial Process)

Thousands Wrongfully Convicted

As of February 2020, the National Registry of Exonerations had documented 2,551 exonerations since 1989. These cases represent over 22,540 years lost in prison by innocent people. (SOURCE: List of wrongful convictions in the United States – Wikipedia) Studies estimate that 4-6% of prisoners, or over 100,000 people, are likely wrongfully convicted. (SOURCE: Wrongful Conviction in the American Judicial Process)

Racial Disparities in Wrongful Convictions

Line chart showing the number of African American exonerations from 2000 to 2020, with a steady rise from 20 exonerations in 2000 to 150 exonerations in 2020.
The chart illustrates the number of African American exonerations from 2000 to 2020 highlighting the increase over the years Source National Registry of Exonerations URL httpswwwlawumicheduspecialexonerationPagesaboutaspx

Race plays a major role in wrongful convictions. African Americans make up 47% of exonerees despite being only 13% of the population. (SOURCE: Wrongful Convictions – Equal Justice Initiative) A 2017 study made a shocking finding. It revealed that innocent Black people are about 7 times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people. (SOURCE: Race and Wrongful Conviction – Innocence Project) On average, Black exonerees spent 3 years longer in prison before exoneration than white exonerees. (SOURCE: Study Shows Race Is Substantial Factor in Wrongful Convictions)

Common Causes

Several factors contribute to wrongful convictions. These include eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, police and prosecutorial misconduct, flawed forensics, inadequate defense, and perjury/false accusations. (SOURCES: Why Do Wrongful Convictions Happen? | Korey Wise Innocence Project, The Issues – Innocence Project) Implicit racial biases and systemic racism also play a significant role, especially for Black defendants. (SOURCES: Examining the Role of Race in Wrongful Convictions – Proclaim Justice, What’s at the Root of Wrongful Convictions? – BC Law Magazine)

Efforts to Address the Issue

Since the late 1980s, organizations like the Innocence Project and National Registry of Exonerations have worked tirelessly. They strive to uncover wrongful convictions and advocate for the innocent. (SOURCES: Wrongful Conviction in the American Judicial Process, Wrongful Convictions – Equal Justice Initiative) Authorities have implemented some reforms, like improved eyewitness identification procedures and recording interrogations. (SOURCES: Examining the Role of Race in Wrongful Convictions – Proclaim Justice, Why Do Wrongful Convictions Happen? | Korey Wise Innocence Project)

Addressing Racial Disparities in Wrongful Convictions

Despite significant progress, wrongful convictions remain a pressing issue in the U.S. criminal justice system. African Americans continue to face higher rates of wrongful imprisonment, driven by systemic racism and flawed legal practices. While organizations like the Innocence Project make strides in exoneration efforts, comprehensive reforms are needed to prevent future injustices. Addressing these disparities is essential for building a more equitable legal system and restoring faith in justice.

About the author

Darius Spearman has been a professor of Black Studies at San Diego City College since 2007. He has authored several books, including Between The Color Lines: A History of African Americans on the California Frontier Through 1890. You can visit Darius online at africanelements.org.