|Somewhere under the tall grass and thistle in Chester Township lies the body|
of Alexander McClay Williams, an African American teen executed
84 years ago for a murder Lemon is convinced he didn't commit.
By the time he reached his 16th birthday, Alexander McClay Williams had achieved a dubious distinction at the Glen Mills School for Boys, a facility for adjudicated youth in Thornbury. Assigned there in 1926 when he was 12 by Delaware County Judge W. Roger Fronefield because he had set fire to a barn on Baltimore Pike, he became the reform school's longest resident "inmate."
The way Glen Mills Superintendent Major Hickman saw it, the boy, who was the second oldest of a poor African-American family of 13 children, would probably have been "imprisoned" there until he was 21, the maximum age allowed, because of constant "disobedience" and "malicious mischief."
Instead, Williams would achieve another, more grim distinction.
At 7:03 a.m. on June 8, 1931, a little more than 6 weeks shy of Williams' 17th birthday, 2,000 volts of electricity were discharged into his body at Rockview Prison in Centre County. 5 months earlier, the boy, who was described in newspaper accounts as "slight," had been convicted by an all-white jury of fatally stabbing 34-year-old Glen Mills matron Vida Robare 47 times with an ice pick.
"Alexander appears to be the youngest person executed by the state of Pennsylvania," said Sam Lemon, a Media author and educator who has spent more than 30 years researching the case.
From 2 to 4 p.m. Feb. 7 at Media Fellowship House, 302 S. Jackson St., Lemon will present a Power Point program open to the public about his findings on the case, which he expects to publish this spring in a book titled "The Case That Shocked the County."
"This case has haunted me, a 16-year-old kid sitting in the electric chair with a hood over his head. I'm sure he was crying his eyes out, not understanding why he was there, how this all came to be," said Lemon, who was formerly employed as a social worker for 13 years with Delaware County Children and Youth Services.
The 64-year-old Media resident first became aware of the case around age 10 when his grandmother, Maud Ridley, talked about it. Her father - Lemon's great-grandfather - William H. Ridley, in 1891 became the 1st African-American admitted to the Delaware County Bar Association. He was the son of Cornelius and Martha Jane Parham Ridley, who fled to Media after escaping slavery at a Virginia plantation. They were assisted by a Quaker family named Yarnall from Providence Friends Meeting, where Lemon is currently a member.
In October 1930, William Ridley, who was the only African-American attorney in Delaware County, was ordered by the court to represent the young Williams.
"He did not like the case," Lemon said. "It didn't make sense to him. The kid had signed a confession 2 weeks before he was assigned the case. His strategy had to be either to throw him on the mercy of the court or to impugn the integrity of the detectives."
Lemon said his great-grandfather concluded there would be no benefit in discrediting the white detectives before an all-white jury of 3 men and 9 married women, the most women ever selected in Delaware County "on an important murder case," according to the Jan. 5, 1931, edition of the Chester Times, forerunner of the Delaware County Daily Times.
Lemon's book will be another step in his mission to exonerate the teen who, by today's standards, appeared to have been developmentally disabled and who he believes was unwittingly forced into confessing to a crime most likely committed by the victim's ex-husband, Fred Robare.
"Neither Vida or Alexander deserved to die. They both were murdered in a sense. On his death certificate, it says 'judicial execution,' but it was murder because he didn't do it," said Lemon, who is now director of the Organizational and Strategic Leadership graduate program at Neumann University in Aston.
He believes at least 3 of Williams' constitutional rights were violated: his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself; his Sixth Amendment right to confront any witnesses; and his 14th Amendment right to due process and equal justice under the law.
"There was no physical evidence, no fingerprints, no witnesses, no parents or attorney present when he was questioned," said Lemon.
Lemon is not alone in his assertion. He has shared his findings with legal experts, painstakingly culled from newspaper clippings of the Chester Times, Glen Mills School and Delaware County records, the Ancestry.com website, the Delaware County Library System's newspaper archives, and the official transcript of Williams' 2-day trial in January 1931.
Robert Keller, a former Delaware County prosecutor who now is a criminal defense attorney, has reviewed Lemon's 95-page Power Point presentation on the case and has met with Delaware County judges who agreed to waive costs for the trial transcript to be copied so he can review it.
"It is too early for me to formulate an opinion concerning the guilt or innocence of the child, but it is clearly an important case for all to hear about. The justice system of the '30s failed this young African-American and it is rewarding to see that our bar association and the county judges want the matter investigated and brought to the public's attention," said Keller, himself a former Delaware County assistant district attorney.
He is a board member of the Delaware County Bar Association and is working with Lemon, who has a doctorate in education from the University of Pennsylvania, along with bar association executive director William L. Baldwin to present an educational program about the case for all Delaware County lawyers and the public.
"More importantly, I am interested to represent this juvenile who was put to death, pro bono, to explore whether there is any possibility of redress in court. At a minimum I would like to explore a pardon," said Keller.
He believes the cards were stacked against the boy from the beginning of the case.
"He was questioned continually without counsel and his lawyer did not have the tools or manpower to properly represent him," Keller said. "The government brought in extra prosecutors and investigators to prepare their case and the defense had nothing."
Keller noted that bloody fingerprints found at the scene apparently were not evaluated and that other suspects, including Robare's husband, were not investigated. The entire trial lasted only 2 days and Williams was executed 5 months later.
"An all-white jury heard the case and it appeared that there was very little sympathy for the child defendant," said Keller.
The Pennsylvania Innocence Project has also expressed an interest in the case, said Lemon.
"It is my honor to play a part uncovering the dark history of our judicial past," said Keller.
Despite the fact that the United States Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for anyone under age 18 in 2005, Pennsylvania law still permits execution of people as young as 16, Williams' age when he went to the electric chair 85 years ago.
"This is in conflict with the Supreme Court and the governor must be taking that into consideration," said Keller, referring to the moratorium Gov. Tom Wolf placed on executions when he took office last year.
Williams' birth date of July 23, 1914, was correct on his June 8, 1931, death certificate, but his age was obviously altered by someone who changed the "6" to an "8" by writing over it, making him appear 18, the age that also was consistently misreported in news accounts of the case.
Also apparent on the Oct. 4, 1930, death certificate of Vida Robare, who Delaware County Deputy Coroner George H. Rigby indicated in black ink died of "puncture wounds to the heart," is that someone later added in blue ink "caused by ice pick in hands of Alexander McClay Williams." Lemon noted that coroners' certificates of death typically do not identify assailants and Williams was not charged with the crime until several days after the autopsy.
The 2 tampered documents are among many instances of what Lemon feel are questionable prosecutorial and judicial conduct uncovered in the case, not the least of which was that Fronefield, the same judge who committed the boy to Glen Mills, presided at his trial 4 years later and sentenced him to death. Fronefield also sustained an objection by Delaware County District Attorney William J. MacCarter Jr. when Ridley questioned Det. Michael C. Testrall on the legality of removing the boy from Delaware County Prison to obtain a 3rd confession during a car ride, when a court order indicated he was only to be released from prison to attend a magistrate's hearing.
"It was a hostile court, a hostile prosecution and a hostile judge and it showed what a predicament Ridley was in. If the judge didn't care that the detective broke the law to get a confession, there was no hope of a fair trial at that point," maintained Lemon.
When Vida Robare's body was initially discovered by her ex-husband around 5 p.m. Oct. 3, 1930, in her 2nd-floor bedroom of Cottage No. 5 where she had been on her bed reading a magazine love story and eating a pear, none of the 600 students - then referred to as "inmates" - were suspects. In addition to 47 stab wounds, suggesting the ferocity of a crime of passion, Mrs. Robare had suffered a fractured skull and broken ribs.
According to an Oct. 4, 1930, Chester Times article, Glen Mills School Board Member George T. Butler said all the boys had been accounted for and noted, "I don't see how a boy could have done this deed."
Butler would later testify in court that flogging students with a flat strap below the waist was considered a "humane form" of punishment at Glen Mills. Lemon said Williams had been flogged four times. One of his crimes was stealing 110 cans of boot black that Lemon theorized Williams liked to huff because it contained ethylene glycol, an ingredient no longer found in shoe polish.
"The school is a far different and more progressive place today," said Lemon, who noted that without Glen Mills School officials' permission to review Williams' records, he never would have been able to uncover the facts that may help clear the teenager's name.
Delaware County Chief Detective Oliver N. Smith told the Chester Times on Oct. 4, 1930, "This crime was committed by a full-grown and strong man. The woman was unmistakably athletic and could have fought off a boy."
Lemon said it appears detectives did not realize that Fred Robare, the full-grown man who discovered the victim's body, was not her husband, but her ex-husband who had followed her to Glen Mills, where she lived with their 10-year-old son Dale, and had gotten a job as a farm instructor. Lemon was able to locate the divorce decree via the Internet.
"They had divorced in 1921. The cause was 'extreme cruelty.' She had filed for divorce in Michigan. That fact never came out," said Lemon, who added that Mrs. Robare had also worked in Maryland and New Jersey after the divorce.
When the prosecutor put Williams on the stand and asked him why he killed Mrs. Robare, the boy, who had lived in the dormitory connected to Cottage No. 5, testified it was to get back at Mr. Robare, who would often kick him. Williams said that Mrs. Robare would intervene and then Mr. Robare would beat her. Mr. Robare's assaults on Williams were so frequent that the boy eventually was transferred to Cottage No. 3. Lemon said that both Mrs. Robare and Glen Mills School Assistant Superintendent B.E. Welch had apparently been kind to Williams during his time there.
"I think it is a far more compelling case that Fred Robare is the killer because Alexander had no history of violence, and added to the fact they had been divorced 9 years on the grounds of extreme cruelty. The husband had a history of violence. Alexander did not. The husband had a reason to be angry with her. Alexander did not," said Lemon.
Lemon also suggested it did not make sense that Williams would kill Mrs. Robare because she was 1 of his 2 allies at the school, she was taller than him and she outweighed him by about 25 pounds. Furthermore, at trial, August E. Schneider, who had been supervising Williams the afternoon of the murder and had sent him on 2 errands to pick up shovels, then deliver the receipt for the shovels, testified the teenager had returned from both errands in a timely fashion, appeared calm and was wearing the same clothes, which were not blood-stained.
Lemon said that Williams would have had to get through several locked doors to reach Mrs. Robare. When her body was found, her watch and $15 - then during the Depression the equivalent of about $200 today - were still on her dresser. Only her keys were missing, which the assailant would not need to exit the building. They were later found in the school's power house reservoir. At trial Hickman, the school superintendent, said Williams led authorities to the ice pick, which was stowed in a hole in the wall of the tunnel beneath Cottage No. 5. Lemon said detectives had a mason break another hole in the wall, then instructed Williams "to reach in and grab that ice pick," 1 of 2 from Mrs. Robare's kitchen.
"If his fingerprints weren't on the ice pick before, now they were and any other ones were smudged," said Lemon.
During his first 2 interrogations, Williams denied murdering Mrs. Robare, said Lemon. Hickman testified on Jan. 6, 1931, that Williams "finally" confessed to the crime the night of Oct. 7, 1930, "after I left him alone for about 20 minutes. He sobbed out his story, 'I did it.'" Detectives extracted 2 more confessions from the boy, the third one on Oct. 9. Lemon said Hickman told Williams that he was "seen" in Mrs. Robare's cottage, but never said who had seen him.
Lemon tapped 2 certified school psychologists with the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center to evaluate Williams' history. They said Williams appeared to be intellectually deficient, had limited language comprehension and lacked the violent tendencies necessary to commit a spontaneous crime of passion, as it appeared Mrs. Robare's murder was. They said his confession was "typical behavior for lower-functioning, troubled juveniles."
"Here's a very malleable suspect. The kid would say anything you wanted. He had already been flogged four times in school. He had been abused already and was mentally challenged," said Lemon. "I think Fred Robare did it and somehow led investigators in that direction."
Lemon said Mr. Robare delivered 2 versions of how he discovered his ex-wife's body. He initially told authorities he had last seen Mrs. Robare around 1:30 p.m. Oct. 3, when matrons were on their break time and "officers" such as himself left to work with the boys at their various trades.
"He came back at 5 o'clock to the cottage with a work crew of 11 boys and he gives the key to one of the boys to open the cottage and the boy tells him the door is already open. He goes up to the 2nd floor and finds her,'" said Lemon.
However, Lemon said a newspaper in Michigan quoted a letter Robare wrote to his parents saying he returned to the cottage and waited downstairs for supper and when Mrs. Robare didn't appear he went upstairs and found her body. Their son, who was visually impaired, had returned home earlier but did not notice his mother's body.
Lemon believes Mr. Robare may have returned to the cottage mid-afternoon and was spurned by his attractive ex-wife when he made sexual advances, causing him to fly into a rage. She may have also threatened to report him for being derelict in his school duties, speculated Lemon.
At least 1 distant relative of Fred Robare agrees with Lemon's theory. Fred's brother, Daniel Robare, was the great-grandfather of Teresa Smithers, a 59-year-old Michigan writer and family historian who began researching the Vida Robare case about 10 years ago. Last year she was put in touch with Lemon by another distant Robare cousin, Jane Ward Hamilton, who Lemon had contacted via Facebook.
"I do not officially represent all Robares, but as a part of that bloodline, I think it is high time we changed our family karma by finding out the truth of this murder and vindicating a wrongly accused boy. I want to leave my children a heritage of courage, strong women and resilience, not alcoholism and domestic violence," said Smithers last Thursday.
Smithers noted that she has long felt Williams was innocent of Mrs. Robare's murder and that Mrs. Robare was killed by her ex-husband, but she never knew quite what to do about those feelings.
"I truly didn't think anyone else would care besides me, so it was a great joy to find out Sam Lemon was even more committed to this story," she noted.
Susie Carter, the last survivor of Williams' 12 siblings, was only 16 months old when her brother was executed, so she never really knew him. While growing up in Middletown, she would hear bits and pieces about him from various people who insisted the boy was innocent, but never knew all the details until Lemon contacted her in 2014.
"Well, I was sure he hadn't done it then," said the Chester resident who will be 86 on Monday. "It's been like that for years and even today they're doing the same thing, saying the black man did it."
Carter plans to attend Lemon's program next Sunday at Media Fellowship House along with her daughter, Osceola Williams of Upper Chichester, Williams' 2 daughters and 1 of Williams' brothers. Williams feels her uncle was done an injustice because he was poor and he and his parents probably did not understand what was happening.
"His mother said police told him if he just said he did it, they would let him go home. He was a little slow and the cards were stacked against him. He was in reform school because he set a fire. It was not a violent crime he did," said Osceola Williams, who is named for her grandmother.
Williams said she did not understand why her grandmother was always sad, until she learned about her uncle's execution at age 16.
"Now I know why. She lost a child. She was a very loving mother but she never seemed happy," said Williams.
She would also like to see Williams' name cleared.
"He shouldn't have been killed," he said. "My grandmother has been dead for 50 years. It would be nice if she's up in heaven, that she could smile."
85 years ago Alexander Williams mother did try to vindicate her 16-year-old son with the help of a group called The Citizens Committee to Raise Funds for Alexander McClay Williams, chaired by the Rev. Arthur E. Mann, pastor of Trinity UAME Church in Media. By coincidence, Lemon now resides in the building that once was the church parsonage.
"I'm living in Rev. Mann's old house. Maybe that is why I am a little bit haunted by this case," said Lemon.
The group hired a white attorney, Henry A. Gouley, who first tried an insanity plea to delay or commute Williams' death sentence with the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, then pursued a theory that a white schoolmate from Quakertown had goaded Williams into committing the murder. Neither attempt was successful, although they did get as far as a magistrate's hearing over the alleged accomplice, 2 days before the teenager's execution. It was painfully apparent even then that Alexander Williams did not understand what was happening to him, as reported in the June 6, 1931, Chester Times account of the hearing.
When cross-examining Williams, the other boy's attorney asked him: "Do you know you are going to your death Monday?"
"I didn't know it 'til you said so," Williams replied.
Lemon noted that the vicious murder of Vida Robare, a beautiful white woman born on Valentine's Day in 1896, was "a horrible crime that repulsed people." It was reported in newspapers all across the country and in Canada.
"I think there was a lot of anger and authorities wanted to solve it right away. The issues of racism and poverty played a huge role then as they do now," said Lemon. "Look at the disproportionate number of black men in prison. Look at the number of black men killed by police."
Lemon likens Alexander Williams' case to such recent cases as 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who in 2012 was fatally shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman as he returned from buying candy and soda at a convenience store in Sanford, Fla., and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot to death in 2014 by police in a Cleveland, Ohio, park where he was seen holding what turned out to be the replica of a gun as he sat on a swing.
"My goal is not to prove Fred did it - although looking at the evidence I think he did it - but the goal is to see Alexander is exonerated and that his conviction is vacated because he did not do it," said Lemon.
He does hold out hope. On Dec. 17, 2014, Fourteenth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen overturned the 1944 conviction of George J. Stinney Jr. because she determined his confession had been coerced. Stinney was executed at age 15 (sic) in Alcolu, S.C., for killing 2 white girls he and his sister had been seen talking with a few days earlier. He was only 5 feet, 1 inch tall and 90 pounds when he was executed, so small that a Bible had to be used as a booster seat when he sat in the electric chair.
According to a news service account of Alexander Williams' execution in the June 8, 1931, edition of the Chester Times, "Williams passed his last hours on Earth quietly. He conferred with Father McCreesh and walked to the death chamber early today without sign of visible emotion."
A reporter from a Berks County newspaper saw things differently.
"The Reading paper said he was sobbing and barely able to walk," noted Lemon. "He had to be carried by prison guards to the death chamber."
IF YOU GO..."The Story That Shocked the County" featuring Sam Lemon, 2-4 p.m. Feb. 7, Media Fellowship House, 302 S. Jackson St., Media. Free and open to the public.
Source: delcotimes.com, Patti Mengers, Delaware County Daily Times, January 30, 2016