Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Family of wrongfully executed Pennsylvania man sue 90 years later

Susie Williams Carter was only around a year old when her 16-year-old brother, Alexander McClay Williams, was convicted of murder and executed in an electric chair in 1931. She never knew him. But now, more than 90 years after her brother’s death, she wants to tell everyone about him, reported the Washington Post.

“I want the world to know that he did not do this,” Carter, 94, told The Washington Post on Monday.

It took decades, and the dogged work of the great-grandson of Williams’s defense lawyer, to clear his name. Williams, the youngest person to be executed in Pennsylvania history, had his conviction overturned in 2022 when attorneys brought the case to a Delaware County judge after finding that investigators ignored evidence and pressured Williams, a Black minor, to sign several confessions before his trial.

Williams’s exoneration from the almost century-old conviction was a watershed moment for his family. It also cleared the way for them to seek further recourse. On Friday, they sued Delaware County and representatives for the estates of two detectives and the assistant district attorney in Delaware at the time of Williams’s trial, all now deceased, seeking unspecified punitive damages for Williams’s wrongful conviction and execution.

“The next step is to bring justice,” Carter said. “And to keep people from doing things like this.”

Delaware County and attorneys representing the estates did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday afternoon.

Williams was arrested in 1930 after a White matron at the Delaware County reform school he attended was found dead. Vida Robare, 34, had been stabbed with an ice pick 47 times in a grisly killing that quickly sparked national intrigue, according to Carter’s lawsuit and research conducted by Sam Lemon, the great-grandson of Williams’s defense attorney who led the effort to reexamine his case.

Williams, who was arrested decades before the 1963 Supreme Court ruling that guaranteed criminal defendants the right to counsel, denied the allegations initially but was questioned five times without a lawyer or parent present and ultimately signed three confessions, according to the lawsuit.

Lemon and attorneys who worked to exonerate Williams told The Post in 2022 that prosecutors ignored several pieces of evidence that might have cast doubt on his conviction. A bloody handprint of an adult man found at the crime scene did not match Williams’s handprint. Robare had been discovered by her ex-husband, whom she had recently divorced for “extreme cruelty,” according to family court records. Detectives told a local newspaper that Robare probably was overpowered by an adult.

An all-White jury convicted Williams of murder in January 1931, and he was sent to the electric chair. Carter was too young to remember her brother’s death, she said. But she saw it weigh on her family in the years that followed.

“It breaks my heart when I think of all the things that my mother and father went through,” she said.

Carter said she had assumed Williams was guilty after she was told that he had confessed. Decades later, when Lemon approached Carter with new information about the trial, she was overjoyed and thought back to her parents insisting that her brother was innocent, she said.

Carter saw the county overturn Williams’s conviction in June 2022. In the same courthouse where Williams was convicted, then-Delaware County President Judge Kevin F. Kelly granted a motion for a retrial in Williams’s case, but the district attorney chose not to retry the case. Then-Gov. Tom Wolf (D) exonerated Williams and apologized on behalf of the state, calling his execution “an egregious miscarriage of justice.”

“The Bible says that when Cain killed Abel, God said his blood cried out from the ground,” Carter said. “Well, my brother’s blood must have cried out all these years. And he finally got it answered.”

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