A judge exonerated Alexander McClay Williams, a black teenager executed for murder 91 years ago

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As the first black attorney in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, William Ridley was used to the odds stacked against him. His parents escaped slavery, and he once faced a Ku Klux Klan mob in his backyard. But in 1930, he was given a case he couldn’t win.

A 16-year-old black student, Alexander McClay Williams, has been accused of brutally killing a pretty white matron at his reform school. Ridley was given $10 and 10 weeks to build a defense on his own, facing a team of 15 prosecution investigators.

During the two-day trial, prosecutors omitted evidence they knew could have exonerated Williams. An all-white jury convicted the teenager in less than four hours and sent him to the electric chair, the youngest person to be put to death in state history.

This week, at the same courthouse where the ruling was handed down 91 years earlier, Ridley’s great-grandson Sam Lemon finally won justice for Williams.

A judge overturned Williams’ conviction on Monday, the culmination of more than 30 years of work by Lemon to try to secure posthumous justice for his great-grandfather and the family of Williams, who was never again the same after the loss of their son.

Before a crowded courtroom of Williams’ surviving relatives and other attorneys, Delaware County Chairman Judge Kevin F. Kelly granted a petition for review nine decades after the original, a decision the attorneys involved in the case have few precedents in the history of the state. Immediately afterwards, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer decided to dismiss the charges, acknowledging that they should never have been brought in the first place.

“It’s a stain on our state and it’s a stain on the criminal justice system here in Delaware County,” said Robert Keller, a local attorney who worked with Lemon to reopen the case. “It had basically gone under the rug and that was until Sam Lemon and his attempt to come to light on this matter and try to seek some sort of redemption for his great-grandfather.”

On October 3, 1930, an employee of the Glen Mills School for Boys reported finding the body of his ex-wife Vida Robare in his cabin on campus. Robare, a 34-year-old matron at the school, had been stabbed with an ice pick 47 times, according to court records reviewed by Lemon.

The violent killing made national headlines and prosecutors quickly charged Williams, who was serving an indeterminate sentence at Glen Mills for arson and burglary.

His arrest came decades before the Supreme Court guaranteed defendants the right to counsel and to be informed of the possibility of having a lawyer with them during questioning. Investigators interviewed Williams five times in 17 days without an attorney or relative present, and Williams signed three confessions. A photo of Williams with the district attorney after his confession appears to show the teenager with a black eye. It was only after the confession that Ridley was assigned to the case.

During the two-day trial, prosecutors neglected to introduce key evidence suggesting Williams was not the killer. The bloody handprint of a grown man found at the scene or the fact that Robare had divorced her ex-husband, Fred Robare – the man who was the last to see her alive and said he discovered the body — for “extreme cruelty.” The county chief detective told a local newspaper that the murder was committed by a “mature, strong man,” a finding that was never mentioned in court.

“I don’t know who did it, but I agree with the detective that it was an adult, that it was a crime of passion,” said Keller, the attorney who worked with Lemon. “It looks like a domestic violence case.

Lemon, a local university administrator, said he first heard about the Williams case from his grandmother – Ridley’s daughter – when he was a child. He wondered how his great-grandfather could have lost the case at the height of his five-decade legal career, and why a teenager would commit such a horrific crime.

Living in Ridley’s former home as an adult, he returned to the case, unaware that it would kick off a 30-year research journey. He pored over court and genealogical records, visited the crime scene, and even ordered a psychological autopsy to examine Williams’ psyche. He wrote a book and spoke publicly about the case, but felt more needed to be done.

The sentencing impacted the Williams and Ridley families, Lemon said. Ridley faced disappointment from the local black community, who felt that the only black lawyer in town should have been able to win Williams’ freedom. And the Williams family was devastated by the loss of their son – his father became an alcoholic and his mother lost a baby, according to Lemon. They never discussed Alexander again.

Forced to find some form of legal recourse for both families, he recruited Keller to take the fight to the court system, where the Williams case had long fallen into obscurity.

After reviewing the evidence Lemon had gathered, Keller agreed that Williams had been wrongfully convicted. Still, he said he didn’t know how to get the case back to court nearly a century after it was decided.

In 2017, Keller convinced a judge to partially expunge Williams’ case, a largely symbolic decision that did not rule on Williams’ guilt or innocence.

“Sat [Lemon] and the family was never satisfied with that,” Keller said. “They were happy for us to bring him into a courtroom, but they wanted the real case to be heard.”

In 2019, the county elected Stollsteimer as its first Democratic district attorney in its modern history. Keller said he took a chance and contacted Stollsteimer, a friend, about the case last year.

Stollsteimer said he read the trial transcript while on vacation and was shocked by the treatment Williams received.

“He was targeted at the start of the investigation, he was intimidated into making a confession,” he said. “This young man, even by 1930s standards, was just convicted and not given the due process that any defendant in America is entitled to.”

Stollsteimer and Keller agreed to jointly approach Kelly, the presiding judge, though they doubted Pennsylvania law could provide a remedy so long after Williams’ death. According to Stollsteimer and Keller, it was the judge who did his own research and discovered similarities to the George Stinney Jr. case in South Carolina.

In 1944, 14-year-old Stinney became the youngest person executed in modern US history for allegedly killing two young white girls. In 2014, a circuit judge overturned the conviction using a writ of coram nobis, a little-known holdover from English common law that allows a court to overturn a fundamental error.

It took 10 minutes to convict 14-year-old George Stinney Jr.. It took 70 years after his execution to exonerate him.

Kelly urged the two lawyers – who would normally be opponents in court – to jointly file a new lawsuit applying coram nobis.

“We had a judge who wasn’t afraid to bury this and acknowledge that our county’s history had this awful thing, and it’s important that we bring it to the public’s attention,” said Keller.

On his last day as presiding judge, Kelly granted the motion, overturning the 91-year sentence and achieving Lemon’s goal of three decades.

“I always felt it was a task given to me [to] me because I had a unique perspective and unique insight,” Lemon said. “It was like witnessing a crime and I couldn’t just look away.”

“I feel like a big weight has been lifted off my shoulders, and I did well with Alexander and Vida [Robare] and my great-grandfather,” he added.

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