COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina pardoned syndicated radio host Tom Joyner's great-uncles Thursday, nearly a century after they were sent to the electric chair for the 1913 murder of a Confederate Army veteran.
Officials believe the two men are the first in the state to be posthumously pardoned in a capital murder case.
Black landowners Thomas and Meeks Griffin were executed 94 years ago after a jury convicted them of killing 73-year-old John Lewis, a wealthy white veteran living in Blackstock, a Chester County town 40 miles north of Columbia. Two other black men were also put to death for the crime.
"This won't bring them back, but this will bring closure. I hope now that they rest in peace," Joyner said. "This is a good day."
Joyner, who lives in Dallas, and his attorney made a presentation to the state parole and pardon board on Wednesday, then left the room while the board voted. Family members who flew in for the hearing included his wife and sons, of Dallas, and brother and his family, from Jackson, Miss.
Though he talks to roughly 8 million listeners on the radio daily, Joyner said facing the seven board members "scared me to death." When he was told how they voted, he said he waved his hands and hugged family members in a flood of relief and joy. He also called in to his radio show.
Joyner learned about his uncles' fate two years ago during filming of the PBS documentary "African American Lives 2," which traced his lineage and 11 others' through the research of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.
The talk show host, Gates and legal historian Paul Finkelman then began to work to clear the Griffins' names because records indicated they were framed by another man who was linked to the victim's stolen pistol, but claimed he was only the lookout.
"These were hardworking, outstanding community citizens," Joyner said, noting the family owned about 130 acres. "Out of nowhere it seems, they were accused of murder."
John "Monk" Stevenson, who was known to be a small-time thief, testified against the others in exchange for a life sentence. According to sworn statements, he later told fellow inmates and a detective the four men had nothing to do with the crime, but he pointed his finger at them to save himself.
Stevenson told at least one inmate he chose the Griffin brothers because he thought they were wealthy and could afford a lawyer.
The Griffins had to sell their land to pay for their defense. After the execution, Joyner's grandmother fled to Florida, but did not say why. Joyner said even his father knew nothing of his uncles until Gates uncovered the family secret.
The case was about class and economics as much as race, Gates said.
"They were framed because they were the richest black people in the county," he said. "I as a historian am honored to see something rectified in the present."
Joyner believes an illicit affair and the desire to protect the elderly veteran's reputation also played roles in his uncles' indictment.
Records show police initially focused on Anna Davis, a black woman Lewis was reportedly intimate with. Anna and her husband Bart Davis were arrested with their suitcases packed. Bart Davis was seen at Lewis' home the morning of his death, and Stevenson initially said he got the pistol that tied him to the murder from Bart Davis' brother. One theory was that Stevenson and the Davises worked together.
The four were indicted July 7, 1913, and the trial began two days later. With only a day to prepare, defense attorney W.H. Newbold asked for a delay, but the request was denied. The state Supreme Court later deemed that denial insignificant.
When appeals failed, Newbold asked the governor for a pardon hearing. Some white residents in Chester County agreed.
More than 120 people signed a petition asking then-Gov. Richard Manning to commute the men's sentence, including Blackstock's mayor, a former sheriff, two trial jurors and the grand jury foreman. Manning gave the four a temporary reprieve while he considered it, but ultimately they were sent to the death chamber.
The pardon is not only a family victory, but a step toward the healing of racism nationally, Joyner said. Finkelman, an Albany Law School professor, said the Griffin brothers stand for thousands unjustly convicted. He plans to do more research on the case and possibly write a book.
Gates said it's exciting that an interracial coalition existed in both the 1915 effort to save the Griffins' life and in their pardon Wednesday.
"Racism is alive," Joyner said. "We can't move forward until we" confront the past.