Family of Black teen wrongly executed in 1931 seeks damages after 2022 exoneration


PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The family of the youngest person ever executed in the state of Pennsylvania — a Black 16-year-old sent to the electric chair in 1931 and exonerated by the governor in 2022 — is suing the county that prosecuted him.

Alexander McClay Williams was convicted of murder in the October 1930 icepick stabbing of a white woman in her cottage on the grounds of his reform school.

Vida Robare, 34, had been stabbed 47 times. Her ex-husband, who also worked at the school, reported finding the body, and a photograph of an adult’s bloody handprint, taken at the scene, was examined by two fingerprint experts. But that wasn’t mentioned at the trial, nor was the fact that she had been granted a divorce on the grounds of “extreme cruelty.”

The 5-foot-5, 125-pound Williams instead quickly became a suspect, even though his hands were smaller, there were no eyewitnesses and no evidence linked him to the crime. He was held for days of interrogation without his parents or a lawyer on hand, and ultimately signed three confessions, researchers found.

He was convicted by an all-white jury on January 7, 1931, and executed five months later, on June 8.

“They murdered him,” Susie Williams Carter, 94, of Chester, the last surviving sibling in the family of 13 children, said at a press conference Monday. “They need to pay for killing my brother.”

She was only about a year old at the time, and her parents, devastated, did not talk about it much. They had run a boarding house in Coatesville, but abandoned the business and left town as the scandal garnered national attention, she said.

“This tragedy haunted the family, haunted the parents, haunted Susie, haunted (trial lawyer) William Ridley and his family,” said Philadelphia lawyer Joseph Marrone, who filed the federal lawsuit on Friday against Delaware County and the estates of two detectives and a prosecutor who had pursued the case.

“There was nothing to connect him to the murder. He was a convenient Black boy at the hands of these detectives and this prosecutor,” Marrone said.

Gov. Tom Wolf apologized on behalf of Pennsylvania when he exonerated Williams, and called his execution “an egregious miscarriage of justice.” District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said the teen’s constitutional rights had been violated, and a Delaware County judge vacated the conviction.

Williams had been sent to the Glen Mills School for Boys for starting a fire that burned down a barn, Carter said. The 193-year-old school closed in 2019 after a Philadelphia Inquirer investigation into decades-long allegations of child abuse.

Author and educator Samuel Lemon had known about the case since he was a child because Williams was defended at trial by his great-grandfather, William H. Ridley. The only Black lawyer in Delaware County at the time, Ridley had been paid $10 for the trial, with no support for investigators or experts. He faced off against a team of 15.

Lemon researched the case, tracking down the 300-page trial transcript, and found problems with the evidence, including documents that show Williams’ age incorrectly listed as 18, not 16, along with the husband’s history of abuse.

“As I unpeeled the layers, it became quite evident to me that Alexander McClay Williams was innocent,” Lemon said. “This was kind of a legal lynching.”

Carter said the truth about her brother might never have been known if not for the work by Lemon and others.

“My mother kept saying, ‘Alex didn’t do that. There’s no way he could have done that.’ She was right. But it affected us all,” she said.

Osceola Perdue, a 57-year-old niece of Alexander Williams, said the story pained her when she learned of it, and still resonates today.

“It cut deep because, if you think about it, it’s still going on to this day. You get pulled over by police, you’re scared to death, even me as a woman,” Perdue said. “I still go back to my uncle, thinking how he felt … This keeps happening. It doesn’t stop.”

The Williams family, Marrone said, has the same right to pursue damages as more recent exonerees, nine of whom, all Black men, joined the family at the podium Monday. Exonerees Jimmy Dennis and Michael White of Philadelphia said there should be “collective outrage” over how innocent people are treated by police, prosecutors and others in the justice system, whether today or a century ago.

“We are deeply disgusted by the behavior of the state, but it is emblematic of what we also have went through, so we came here today to stand up with the family and stand for what we see as our little brother,” said Dennis, who last month was awarded $16 million by a jury after spending 25 years on death row, the largest exoneree verdict in Philadelphia history.

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