Radio host wins pardon for executed great-uncles

Syndicated radio-talk show host Tom Joyner’s crusade to clear the names of two great-uncles executed in 1915 for the murder of a Confederate Army veteran ended triumphantly Wednesday when the South Carolina parole board pardoned both men.

The seven-member board voted unanimously to pardon Thomas and Meeks Griffin in what is thought to be the first posthumous pardon in a capital murder case in South Carolina history.

Mr. Joyner, whose radio show is broadcast on WMMJ-FM in Washington, D.C., and reaches an estimated 8 million listeners nationwide daily, said he was “scared to death” before speaking to the board but that “something was going to be done.”

“Even though they’re not here, this won’t bring them back, but this will bring closure,” Mr. Joyner said in televised remarks after the decision. “I hope now they rest in peace.”

Mr. Joyner was accompanied at the hearing by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who inadvertently launched the quest when he traced Mr. Joyner’s genealogy two years ago for a PBS documentary, “African-American Lives II.”

Mr. Joyner, working with Mr. Gates and Albany Law School professor Paul Finkelman, petitioned the governor and parole board for a hearing last year. They presented evidence showing that the Griffin brothers failed to get a fair trial and were convicted despite evidence that others may have committed the crime.

The Griffin brothers were accused in the 1913 murder of John Q. Lewis, a 73-year-old Confederate veteran, at his home in Blackstock, S.C. A judge refused to postpone their trial even though it was scheduled just two days after their indictment, and just one day after their attorney was given access to the coroner’s inquest.

Four days later, on July 12, 1913, the brothers and two other defendants were convicted of the murder. They were sentenced to die in the electric chair.

According to Mr. Finkelman’s work, Lewis had been conducting an affair with Anna Davis, a 22-year-old married black woman. After the murder, the sheriff found a bloody pair of pants among her husband’s belongings and packed bags indicating that the Davises were planning to leave town.

Police also found Lewis’ pistol and watch with John “Monk” Stevenson, a small-time criminal who told police he had bought the pistol from the brother of Davis’ husband. He later said that he had acted as a lookout for the Griffin brothers and two others - testimony that helped convict them.

Stevenson, who was also black, later told a fellow inmate that he had blamed the Griffins because they could afford an attorney and that he was “alone responsible” for the murder.

The Griffins, who owned a small farm, had no criminal record and were considered upstanding members of the community. They were forced to sell 130 acres of their land to pay for their defense. After their convictions, more than 150 residents, including more than 100 white persons, petitioned the governor to commute their death sentence.

“These petitions were based on the belief that the men convicted were almost certainly innocent,” said Mr. Joyner in his letter to the parole board.

During Wednesday’s hearing, parole board member Dwayne Green spoke about the symbolic nature of the Griffin case, said Peter O’Boyle, spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.

“[Mr. Green] made the point that a pardon doesn’t really do any good for someone who’s deceased,” said Mr. O’Boyle. “But it has a lot of symbolic importance for the African-American community.”

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