History June 16, 2022 at 05:00 pm

After 91 years, youngest person executed in Pennsylvania has murder conviction dismissed. This is his story

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

Mildred Europa Taylor June 16, 2022 at 05:00 pm

June 16, 2022 at 05:00 pm | History

Photo of Alexander McClay Williams from a 1930 edition of New York Daily News. Image source: Twitter

It took an all-white jury just four hours in 1931 to convict Black teen Alexander McClay Williams in the stabbing death of a white house matron at the Glen Mills School for Boys in Delaware County. 16-year-old Williams was executed five months later, becoming the youngest person in Pennsylvania history to be executed.

For decades, his family has been trying to prove that he was wrongly convicted. On Monday, June 13, 2022, Williams was posthumously vindicated. A Delaware County judge dismissed his murder conviction. District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer disclosed that the case against Williams has been nol prossed after a successful joint motion. 

“By acting to nol pros the case against Williams, today’s decision is an acknowledgement that the charges against him should never have been brought,” a spokesperson for the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office wrote. 

“Sadly, we cannot undo the past. We cannot rewrite history to erase the egregious wrongs of our forebearers,” Stollsteimer said. “However, when, as here, justice can be served by publicly acknowledging such a wrong, we must seize that opportunity.”

The murder conviction was overturned in the same courtroom where Williams had been convicted 91 years ago. Monday’s ruling was through the help of the great-grandson of the lawyer who represented Williams at trial. Sam Lemon’s great-grandfather, William Ridley, who was the county’s first Black attorney, was given just $10 and 74 days to make a case that Williams did not kill the white matron, Vida Robare.

On October 3, 1930, 34-year-old Robare was found dead inside a cabin at the Glen Mills School for Boys. She had been stabbed 47 times with an icepick and also suffered broken ribs and a fractured skull. Her body was discovered by her ex-husband Fred Robare, who was also an employee at the school. He was said to have had a history of domestic violence against her and was the last person seen with her, yet no one considered him a suspect in her murder.

Instead, Williams was seen as the killer. The young boy had been sent to Glen Mills (which operated like a jail for children) after setting a fire that destroyed a barn and burglarizing a post office when he was 12.

Williams was arrested and charged with Robare’s murder. Ridley was appointed to represent Williams on October 24, 1930. NBC Philadephia reported that during the 17 days between Williams’ arrest and Ridley’s appointment, the teen “signed three separate murder confessions and had been interrogated five times without an attorney or parent present.”

A Delaware County District Attorney’s Office spokesperson wrote that “Williams ‘confessed’ to the crime, despite the lack of eyewitnesses or direct evidence implicating him.”

No appeal was ever filed after the trial that lasted less than two days. Lemon also discovered some 30 years ago that evidence that could have worked in Williams’ favor was also ignored. A man’s bloody handprint was found at the scene but prosecutors did not introduce it at trial, he said. Lemon also said Williams was nowhere near the scene of the crime and could not have killed the matron during the 20-minute period officials had given.

“Williams was supposed to have taken about 15 actions, including going to and from the crime scene; attempting to break into a storage locker; going into Robare’s room and attacking her; dropping his hat in a massive pool of blood; taking her keys and throwing them in a pond; hiding the icepick in a hole in the wall; washing the blood from his hands and hat; and then returning to the area of the school where he was working without a drop of blood on him,” Lemon said, according to Daily Times.

“The only way he could have done this crime is if he could stop time,” Lemon told the outlet.

About seven years ago, Lemon contacted attorney Robert Keller, who worked pro bono to help him get the case overturned. Lemon also worked with Williams’ sole surviving sister, 92-year-old Susie Carter, to show that there was a miscarriage of justice. Ultimately, in 2017, Williams’ record was expunged. 

And now, following Monday’s ruling, Lemon said it feels like a great weight has been lifted off his shoulders. 

“We just wanted it overturned, because we knew he was innocent, and now we want everyone else to know it, too,” Williams’ sister Susie Carter also told The Inquirer.

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