Moments after South Carolina granted a posthumous pardon to Thomas and Meeks Griffin for a controversial murder conviction nearly 100 years ago, their great-nephew, talk show host Tom Joyner, shared the news with his 8 million daily listeners of his syndicated radio show.
“We got it! We got it!” an ebullient Joyner told listeners of the “Tom Joyner Morning Show.”
Nine Joyner family members from Mississippi and Texas traveled to Columbia, S.C., on Wednesday to hear the South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services board render a verdict — believed to be the first posthumous pardon in a capital case in state history.
The Griffin brothers were executed in 1915 for the 1913 murder of 73-year-old John Q. Lewis, a Confederate veteran in Blackstock.
“Mr. Thomas and Meeks Griffin (are) unanimously pardoned today,” announced James H. Williams, chairman of the seven-member Board of Paroles and Pardons.
Joyner, his family, and a group of attorneys had been working to clear the names of Thomas and Meeks Griffin since February 2008, when Joyner first learned of their existence during a PBS documentary, researched and reported by Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates and Albany Law School professor Paul Finkelman.
That group enlisted the aid of Columbia attorney Stephen Benjamin, tracked down the details of the Griffin brothers’ case and finally asked the state for a pardon.
“The good people of South Carolina today have done the right thing,” said Gates, who stood over Joyner’s shoulder during the Columbia presentation. “I’m happy for the Joyner family.”
Gates used advance genealogical methods and DNA analysis to reconstruct the Joyner family history, and that of other people of African descent in America, including comedian Chris Rock, — who also has S.C. roots — entertainer Tina Turner and actor Morgan Freeman.
“I had no idea of this story,” Joyner said. “Black people back in the day didn’t always talk about the struggles from which they came — they looked forward.”
But Todd Shaw, a political science and African American studies professor at the University of South Carolina, said it is no coincidence South Carolina is at the center of this story.
The legacy of Jim Crow, Shaw said, was a weighted scale of justice in which the criminal justice system often was seeking to justify its actions.
That makes Joyner’s case an important one, Shaw said. “He makes us understand there are more stories out there to be told, and possibly many more injustices to be righted,” he said.
Thomas and Meeks Griffin died in the South Carolina electric chair in September 1915, along with two other black men, Nelson Brice and John Crosby, in part on the accusation of a fifth black man, Monk Stevenson.
Stevenson, whom attorneys argued during the trial and appeal was an unfit witness, got a life prison sentence, even though he was found in possession of Lewis’ knife after the murder. He also told police where to find Lewis’ apparently stolen watch.
Two other characters appeared prominently in the case: Anna Davis and her husband, Dave Davis, both of whom also were black. According to evidence tracked down by Joyner’s researchers and presented to the pardons board, Dave Davis regularly stood guard outside Lewis’ home while his wife was inside with Lewis. Those who have been researching the case think Anna Davis and Lewis had a sexual relationship.
The Griffins, prominent and respected black farmers in Chester County, doggedly denied the murder claims, and many prominent whites came to their defense, signing public petitions that cast doubt on the Griffins’ guilt, to no avail.
South Carolina Gov. Richard Manning refused to step in, and the State Supreme Court refused to reverse the convictions. Those were expected outcomes given the time and the social and legal order of the day, said Finkelman.
“The most dramatic aspect of this case is the petitions,” said Finkelman, a writer and Southern Historical Association member who has conducted archival research all across the South.
“Almost everybody who signed them is believed to be white.”
Considering early-20th-century South Carolina, which was plagued by lynchings of black people and Jim Crow laws, Finkelman said it is difficult to comprehend how unlikely it would be for prominent whites to sign their names and positions on a petition favoring blacks, when a wealthy Confederate soldier lay dead.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Finkelman said.
The Griffins ultimately lost 130 acres of family land in Chester County, using the proceeds for their losing legal defense, according to research presented to the pardons board.
Joyner said he was not seeking money from the state.
Instead, Joyner said he has become a huge fan of the value of DNA in the reconstruction of African-American family history and justice.
“Be encouraged,” Joyner said through a bevy of television cameras and reporters to those seeking their histories.
“Wherever you are, you are standing on the shoulders of somebody.”
Those who had a hand in the pardon of Thomas and Meeks Griffin:
— Henry Louis Gates, professor, Harvard University. He informed Tom Joyner of his uncles’ fate two years ago during filming of the PBS documentary “African American Lives 2,” which traced his lineage and those of 11 others.
— Paul Finkelman, professor, Albany Law School. Finkelman researched the legal case against Thomas and Meeks Griffin.
— Stephen Benjamin, Columbia attorney. Benjamin, a former director of the S.C. Department of Pardons, Probation and Parole, made the case for a pardon.
— Samuel Glover, director of the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services. Glover and the seven-member pardons board oversee about 500 pardon cases annually. About half are approved.
HOW GETTING PARDONED WORKS IN S.C.
— A pardon candidate must apply to the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services, provide letters of reference and pay a $100 fee.
— The case is then investigated by agents in the county where the first offense occurred. On average, an investigation takes 90 days.
— When the investigation is completed, it is given to the Parole and Pardon Board for a hearing.
— Anyone granted a pardon is “forgiven from all the legal consequences of his or her crime and conviction.”
(c) 2009, The State (Columbia, S.C.). Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.