CUTHBERT, Ga. -- Relatives of Lena Baker, the only woman ever executed in Georgia's electric chair, placed a wreath on her grave Wednesday to mark the 58th anniversary of her death.
Baker, a black maid, died in the electric chair at Reidsville State Prison on May 5, 1945. An undertaker brought her body back to Cuthbert, about 250 miles southwest of Atlanta, and buried her in a grave that remained unmarked for 50 years.
She was sentenced to die after a one-day trial before an all-white, all-male jury for killing a white man she claimed had threatened her life and had held her in slavery.
"When my mother and grandmother died, I didn't shed a tear," said Roosevelt Curry, 59, Baker's nephew. "But I can cry about this because it was evil."
About 15 relatives and family friends gathered in a cemetery behind Mount Vernon Baptist Church, about five miles west of Cuthbert, to pray and lay a red and white wreath on her grave.
Baker attended church at Mount Vernon and sang in the choir. In 1978, the congregation raised $250 for a slab and marker for her grave.
Baker's relatives contend she was a victim of the racist attitudes that prevailed in the South in the 1940s and they plan to ask the state Pardons and Parole Board, the only Georgia agency with authority to grand pardons, to clear her of the crime.
"I don't know what happened, but right will win in the end," said Curry. "We are the older generation. Our children need to know these things. We want everybody to know these things.
"We want to clear her name," he said.
John Cole Vodicka, director of an Americus-based inmate advocacy program known as the Prison and Jail Project, read her final statement.
"What I done, I did in self defense," he read. "I have nothing against anyone ... I am ready to meet my God."
Vodicka's assistant, Elizabeth Dede, noted that Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, a day of repentance for many Christians.
"On Ash Wednesday, we come forward and confess our sins," she said. "I want to confess for white people the sins of racism and bigotry that led to her death."
Baker was hired to care for Cuthbert businessman E.B. Knight after he injured himself. At her trial, prosecution witnesses said Baker followed Knight on out-of-town trips and that he would often go to her house and demand that she leave with him.
Baker testified that she shot Knight in May 1944, after he held her against her will and threatened to kill her.
The crime she was accused of wouldn't even qualify as a capital murder case under current legal standards, said Vodicka, who will support the family's pardon request.
"I think it will take a lot of pressure from people who recognize this as a gross injustice," he said. "I don't know of anyone who could see this as a capital case 2003. It points clearly to self defense."
The events of 1944 spread fear through Cuthbert's black neighborhood and scattered Baker's relatives as far away as New Jersey and Florida, Curry said. They are just now beginning to reconnect, and plan a reunion and memorial service at Mount Vernon on Mothers' Day, May 11.
"Our family got lost," said Curry, who learned the location of Baker's grave by accident from a friend. "We went all different ways. So this will be a reunion."
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