Radio host seeks pardon for executed SC ancestors

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COLUMBIA, S.C. - Nationally syndicated radio host Tom Joyner is asking South Carolina to posthumously pardon two of his great-uncles - black landowners executed in 1915 after being convicted of murdering an elderly Confederate Army veteran.

Joyner learned of the fate of his great-uncles, farmers Thomas and Meeks Griffin, during filming of the PBS documentary "African American Lives 2," which first aired in February 2008 and was based on research by Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The program traces the lineage of 12 people, including Joyner. The host of "The Tom Joyner Morning Show" said he was stunned to learn of his South Carolina roots and two great-uncles he didn't know existed - much less of their execution.

"The records will show they did not do what they were executed for, and maybe now they can rest in peace," Joyner said from his Dallas studio.

He said a pardon would bring long-overdue justice, adding "I started trying to put myself in my great-uncles' position and tried to imagine what they must've been going through."

The Griffins were forced to sell their 130 acres to finance their defense. After they died in the electric chair on Sept. 29, 1915, Joyner's grandmother moved to Florida where the family's known history begins.

"It's very unusual for stories like this to be passed down from generation to generation among African-Americans. As a people, we don't like to pass along bad news about family," Joyner said.

In June 2008, Joyner, Gates and legal historian Paul Finkelman wrote Gov. Mark Sanford seeking a pardon. The case is scheduled Oct. 14 before the state's parole and pardon board.

If a pardon were granted, it would be South Carolina's first awarded posthumously in a capital murder case, said Pete O'Boyle, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.

Court documents show the Griffin brothers were executed with two other black men for the April 1913 shooting death of John Lewis, 73. Lewis was a wealthy veteran living in Blackstock, a Chester County town 40 miles north of Columbia.

The four were indicted July 6, 1913, and the trial began two days later. With only a day to prepare, defense attorney W.H. Newbold asked for a delay, but the request was denied. The state Supreme Court later deemed that denial insignificant.

Finkelman said such speedy trials were apparently once the norm and the decision wasn't necessarily racial - but it was unfair.

Joyner believes his uncles were framed.

Records show police initially focused on Anna Davis, a black woman Lewis was reportedly intimate with. She and husband Bart Davis were arrested with their suitcases packed. But attention later shifted when Lewis' stolen pistol was traced to John "Monk" Stevenson, a small-time criminal who first said he got the gun from Bart Davis' brother.

He claimed he was only a lookout when Lewis was killed. In a plea deal that spared his life, Stevenson - who is also black - named the Griffin brothers and the two others and testified against them. He later received a life sentence.

According to sworn statements, Stevenson told people in jail the four men he implicated knew nothing of the crime, but he named them to save himself.

When appeals failed, Newbold asked the governor for a pardon hearing.

Some white residents in Chester County agreed.

More than 120 people signed a petition to then-Gov. Richard Manning declaring "grave doubts as to their guilt" and requesting a reduced sentence. The signatures included people identified as Blackstock's mayor, a former sheriff, two trial jurors and the grand jury foreman.

A former detective wrote that information was withheld from the defense, and that Stevenson also told him the four convicted had nothing to do with the murder.

Finkelman, an Albany Law School professor, called the petition astonishing. In his decades studying Southern history, this is the first time he's seen petitions signed by prominent white residents in support of a black man accused of murdering a white man.

"It just didn't happen," he said. "The nature of South Carolina in 1900 was, if a black man was arrested for a crime like this, you could be pretty sure they'd be convicted and executed, and nobody would care."

Still, hundreds of residents signed petitions asking the governor to dismiss appeals for clemency and urging execution.

But the signatures of support show "everybody wasn't unfair," said Joyner, who grew up in Tuskegee, Ala. "It says something about the history of racism in South Carolina that everybody wasn't like that back then."

Nearly a century later, it's impossible to determine who did commit the murder, according to Joyner, Gates and Finkelman.

While a pardon isn't an apology, it means if the men were tried today, they likely wouldn't be convicted, said Joyner's attorney, Steve Benjamin.

"It was a sad period in our state's history and probably not uncommon," he said. "It doesn't undo what happened. It does allow the state to put its best foot forward."

Joyner said learning the family secret has changed his life.

"It's been mind-opening. When I see when and how far people have gone before me, it makes me stronger." He added, "There are probably so many stories like this that will never come to light, and their cases will never be heard."

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Fish Out of Water
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Fish Out of Water 10/08/09 - 07:12 am
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So it begins...

So it begins...

55 F-100
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55 F-100 10/08/09 - 07:47 am
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A ridiculous waste of the

A ridiculous waste of the court's time and energy.

justus4
113
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justus4 10/08/09 - 08:03 am
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If Joyner think that state
Unpublished

If Joyner think that state will do anything to honor the murdered Blacks, killed at the hands of racist murderers, he will soon find out. They still fly the confederate flag, spitting in the face of every minority citizen. His money and influence maybe applied to commerce to that state and pressure applied by exposing the violent and hateful history. The Orangeburg Killings (1969) that have never been solved with the killers probably still on the streets. This is American history, but sadly, the folks responsible for upholding the laws are not interested in exposing their wicked & violent history. Good luck, Tom! For that bunch, ya really gonna need it.

WhippingPost
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WhippingPost 10/08/09 - 08:06 am
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This is a wonderful way to

This is a wonderful way to gain recognition for the barely noticed Tom Joyner Show. Since the Gates name is still recognizable, right now, it's time for this court show. Of course, who else but the left leaning AP would consider it significant enough to notice?

Ushouldnthave
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Ushouldnthave 10/08/09 - 08:43 am
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Justus, you must have skipped

Justus, you must have skipped over "Stevenson - who is also black - named the Griffin brothers and the two others and testified against them." in your rush to babble. It was clearly the fault of a black man that these two were convicted and executed. Put blame where it belongs.

APiratesLife4Me
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APiratesLife4Me 10/08/09 - 09:31 am
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Justus, Shouldn't you be

Justus, Shouldn't you be mopping a floor somewhere? I think I hear them calling you for a clean up on aisle seven.

DMac_357
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DMac_357 10/08/09 - 09:49 am
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WhippingPost - since you

WhippingPost - since you don't listen to the Tom Joyner Morning Show, you think it's barely noticed? You are sadly mistaken. The Fly Jock has been in radio for years and has a large listening audience. He also hosts the Black Family Reunion every year and has nationally recognized recording artists perform, just like this years event in Orlando, FL. Just because you don't know about him, doesn't mean he's not known. 55 F-100, why do you consider someone asking for a pardon a waste of time? I bet if it was your relatives, you wouldn't be saying the same thing.

corgimom
38545
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corgimom 10/08/09 - 12:10 pm
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I didn't get the memo that

I didn't get the memo that life was supposed to revolve around Justus and his views. OK.

Jdog33
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Jdog33 10/08/09 - 02:53 pm
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Go Mr. Joyner!

Go Mr. Joyner!

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