Prosecutor might seek sharecropper’s posthumous exoneration

Sep 25, 2022, 11:15 AM | Updated: 12:13 pm

ATLANTA (AP) — A Georgia district attorney said he may revisit a decades-old case in which the state Supreme Court overturned three murder convictions of a Black sharecropper in the killing of a white man to determine whether the sharecropper deserves to be formally exonerated posthumously.

Weaknesses in the case were detailed in a book published this year, “The Three Death Sentences of Clarence Henderson.”

Carroll County District Attorney Herb Cranford has launched a review of the case and could ask a judge to formally clear Henderson’s name, as charges against him were never dismissed, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

“When a past case is brought to my attention, regardless of its age, and a credible claim can be made that the accused was wrongly charged or convicted, I believe the pursuit of justice includes reviewing the case to determine if an injustice occurred in the past,” Cranford told the newspaper.

Henderson was tried and convicted three times for the 1948 killing of 22-year-old Carl “Buddy” Stevens Jr., a Georgia Tech student who was shot while on a date in Carrollton, a town about 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Atlanta.

Henderson was arrested more than a year after the killing, and defense lawyers, including a biracial team funded by the NAACP, repeatedly poked holes in the prosecution’s case. Those questions, including some focusing on the alleged murder weapon at a time when forensic science was in its infancy, weren’t enough to persuade jurors to acquit Henderson. But they helped persuade appeals courts to repeatedly overturn the conviction. In January 1953, Henderson was allowed to post bail and leave jail, but the charges were never dropped.

Cranford said he is reviewing trial transcripts, state Supreme Court opinions and other records to decide whether to seek judicial action.

“In this particular case, the fact that Mr. Henderson had his conviction overturned three separate times by the Georgia Supreme Court and the fact the state never sustained a conviction against him provides a sufficient basis in my view to review the case,” Cranford said.

Cranford, who has been in office since 2018, said he didn’t know about the case until the book was published.

Clarence Henderson died 40 years ago. His great-grandson, Brandon Henderson, said the family knew he had been accused of killing a white man and that he had escaped the death penalty, but they weren’t familiar with the details until now. He said as he learned about his great-grandfather’s trials, he was “floored” by the inequality of the segregation-era courts and the obstacles his great-grandfather faced.

“It brought me to tears a couple times,” Brandon Henderson said. “How can this judicial system, in which we all are a part of, simply turn a blind eye to something that is just outright wrong?”

Ernest Henderson, a grandson of Clarence Henderson, said he knew his grandfather well but never knew what to think about the Carrollton stories. Clarence Henderson was a hard man, who had scrapes with the law before he was accused of murder. He was embittered about his years-long struggle with the murder accusation, Ernest Henderson said.

“He never talked about it,” he said.

Reopening such an old case is rare. But Hank Klibanoff, an Emory University professor and director of the school’s Civil Rights Cold Cases Project, said addressing injustices from decades past is important, even when the victims and perpetrators are dead.

“There is a very important judgment that history can make,” he said.

Cranford said he would like to hear from members of the Carrollton community, including surviving members of Stevens’ family or the family of his girlfriend at the time, “to explain to them why I’m reviewing the case, to hear their thoughts about the case, and to provide them with my assessment of the evidence.”

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Prosecutor might seek sharecropper’s posthumous exoneration