SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Joe James, a black man, was sleeping under a tree when he was arrested, beaten and later arrested for the murder of a white man in Springfield, Illinois.
Before he was tried and later executed, a white mob seeking revenge for the crime James was accused of taking out its hatred and anger on other black people in the state capital.
The race riots of 1908 saw black businesses and homes looted and burned. At least two other black men were hanged weeks before an all-white jury convened after the violence found James guilty, according to a legal team petitioning for a pardon 114 years after the incident. Their argument: The jury was racially prejudiced and James did not accept a fair trial.
The riots and their aftermath sparked the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People a year later.
“James' factual innocence is not the focus of this petition, because the passage of time and the destruction of evidence have made it impossible to conclusively prove James' innocence,” said Steve Drizin, co-director of Northwestern University's Pritzker School of Law. Center on False Beliefs.
The Center on Wrongful Convictions and Northeastern University School of Law's Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project in Boston petitioned for an executive pardon this month. They should appear before a review board starting next month.
The review body may then make a recommendation for clemency to Governor JB Pritzker. If successful, the posthumous act would be the third pardon in Illinois over the past decade and follows recent ones elsewhere in the US.
James is accused of entering Pastor Ballard's home in July 1908 when Ballard's 16-year-old daughter woke to find a man sitting on her bed. Reports from the time stated that Ballard caught the man outside the house and was stabbed or hacked to death during the scuffle.
James was arrested hours later and locked up in the county jail where the following month he joined another black man, George Richardson, who was accused of sexually assaulting a white woman.
Threats from white residents against the two men prompted authorities to transfer them to a prison outside Sangamon County. Enraged, the white mob judged the city's black residents.
At least eight white people died in the violence and more than 100 were injured, mostly by state militia members or each other, according to the petition, which cited news articles from the period. It is not known how many black people were injured and killed.
The first business the white mob burned down was a restaurant whose white owner used his car to help move James and Richardson from the Sangamon County Jail. A restaurant owned by a black woman, Kadejia Berkley, is now standing at the location of the restaurant.
James appeared before a Sangamon County jury after a judge refused to move the trial to another county. He was “convicted on circumstantial evidence,” the lawyers seeking a pardon said in a release.
On October 23, 1908, just over two months after the riot, James was hanged in the Sangamon County Jail. White rioters were acquitted for their role in lynching and destruction.
“Throughout history, we have seen white juries not only convict and execute black men and women on little evidence, but acquit white men who killed black people in the face of overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing,” said Margaret Burnham, founding director of The Right Northeastern Civil and Civil Rights. Restorative Justice Project. “This double standard operated in Springfield in 1908, infecting the Springfield criminal justice system and depriving James of a fair trial.”
In 2020, the riot site near downtown Springfield was added to the National Park Service's African-American Civil Rights Network.
Granting a posthumous pardon would not pave a new way, the petition said.
In 2014, then-Illinois Governor Pat Quinn pardoned three white abolitionists convicted of aiding runaway slaves in the 1840s. Five years later, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner pardoned Grover Thompson, a black man convicted of killing a white woman in 1981.
One of the more prominent acquittal cases involved nine black men who were accused of raping two white women in 1931 in Alabama. The “Scottsboro Boys” were convicted by a white jury. All but the youngest accused were sentenced to death. Five of the sentences were overturned in 1937 after one of the alleged victims recanted his story. Everyone was eventually released. Clarence Norris, the last surviving defendant, was pardoned in 1976 by the governor of Alabama. The rest received posthumous pardons in 2013.
Such pardons mean a lot to the relatives of those wrongly accused and convicted, said Osceola Perdue, nephew of Alexander McClay Williams, a 16-year-old black youth who was convicted in 1931 by an all-white jury and executed in the murder of a white man. warden of a boys' school in Delaware County, Pennsylvania.
Williams signed a murder confession but later recanted. Charges against him were dropped last June after the Delaware County district attorney's office said there was no direct evidence implicating Williams in the murder and no witnesses.
“It's so sad to know he's only 16 years old and they don't care as long as they punish someone,” Perdue told The Associated Press. “He is a black kid. They punished a kid they knew didn't do this.”
Perdue, 56, said his father first told him about his brother's tragic story when he was 8 years old.
“My grandmother, as I later found out, never thought she would do it,” said Perdue. “My grandmother went to her death bed knowing that her son had gone into the electric chair.”
Williams' sister, Susie Carter, described her pardon as “delightful”.
“It means a lot to me,” said Carter, 93, of Chester, Pennsylvania, Wednesday. “All this time, you thought maybe he did it because he confessed. It's not something you're proud of. My mother will say that my brother did not kill the woman.”
“My brother's blood must have been coming out of the ground,” he said. “That country killed my brother.”