Jimmy Wilson (laborer)

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James "Jimmy" E. Wilson (born c.1903-4),[1] was an American farmhand who was sentenced to death by an Alabama court after he was convicted of violent robbery in 1958.[2] As an African-American, his case became a cause célèbre due to the small amount stolen ($1.95) and the fact that Wilson was convicted by an all-white jury.

The case became a source of embarrassment for the United States at the height of the Cold War, as it suggested that American promotion of democratic principles overseas was hypocritical when it did not seem to uphold the same standards in its own states.[3]

The case[edit]

Jimmy Wilson of Perry County, Alabama was an illiterate farmhand.[4] He was arrested on 27 July 1957 for stealing $1.95 at night from a 74 year old[5] white widow, Estelle Barker, in Marion, Alabama.[4] Barker also testified that Wilson attempted to rape her, which he denied, although he was not indicted on this charge, as night time robbery carried a harsher potential sentence.[6] An all white jury convicted Wilson of robbery, and the judge sentenced Wilson to death by electrocution.[7]

What counted against Wilson was the fact that the robbery was violent (Wilson had choked Barker, attempted rape and threatened her life), that it took place in the victim's home and that Wilson had previously served two prison terms for grand larceny.[8] Wilson admitted that he had been drinking heavily on the day of the incident, and that the robbery was premeditated.[9]

Robbery in Alabama carried the death penalty at the time, although no one had ever been sentenced to death for stealing less than $5.[10]

In September 1958, Wilson's two brothers hired Fred Gray to represent him.[4]

The case was appealed to the State Supreme Court, which upheld the death sentence. In its opinion, the Court stressed that the conviction was due to the violent nature of the robbery, and that "the amount of the money ... taken is immaterial."[11]

International coverage[edit]

The case received international coverage, with critical articles appearing in newspapers all across the world. Protest groups were formed and petitions were sent demanding that the death sentence be overturned.[12] The US embassy in London received approximately 600 protest letters.[13] Jim Folsom, the Governor of Alabama, received over 1,000 letters per day urging clemency for Wilson.[3] The British Labour Party and the International Commission of Jurists likewise sent letters urging clemency.[14] Even the Alabama based Birmingham Post-Herald came down in favor of clemency.[15] The story was used as propaganda in the Communist press.[16]

The US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles sent a letter to Folsom notifying him of the immense international attention the case had received. The sentence was commuted to a life sentence by Folsom on September 29, 1958, which was the most he was legally able to do to aid Wilson.[17] Folsom commented, "I admit that we have got the worst penal system in the world, including Dark Africa ... I hope the next Legislature will do something about improving the situation."[15]

Wilson was paroled on 1 October 1973, at the age of 70 and having served 16 years in prison.[18] The record after his release is silent.[15]

References[edit]

  1. ^ He was 70 years old on or before October 1, 1973, when he was paroled.
  2. ^ Dudziak, Mary L., "The Case of 'Death for a Dollar Ninety-Five: Finding America in American Injustice", University of Southern California Law School, 2007, p.5
  3. ^ a b Mary L. Dudziak (31 July 2011). Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. Princeton University Press. pp. 3–6. ISBN 978-0-691-15243-1. Retrieved 9 July 2012. 
  4. ^ a b c Alabama High Court Denies Plea Of Negro Doomed in a Robbery: Tribunal, in Refusing Rehearing, Stresses Night-Time Aspect of Case, Not $1.95 Total -- Governor May Spare Wilson New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 12 Sep 1958: 15.
  5. ^ Estelle Barker - Marion, AL. SSN: 416707145 - Death Records
  6. ^ Alabama Negro to Die For a Robbery of $1.95 New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 17 Aug 1958: 42.
  7. ^ Ronald E. Kates; Warren Tormey (2 November 2012). Baseball and Social Class: Essays on the Democratic Game That Isn't. McFarland. pp. 163–4. ISBN 978-1-4766-0088-8. 
  8. ^ "Death Sentence On Negro" The Times (London). Aug 23, 1958. (54237), col C, p. 6.
  9. ^ Wilson v. State :: 1958 :: Alabama Supreme Court Decisions :: Alabama Case Law :: US Case Law :: US Law :: Justia
  10. ^ Times Daily - Google News Archive Search
  11. ^ "Alabama Negro's Appeal Fails" The Times (London). Friday, Sep 12, 1958. (54254), col G, p. 10.
  12. ^ Dudziak, Mary L., "The Case of 'Death for a Dollar Ninety-Five: Finding America in American Injustice", University of Southern California Law School, 2007, pp.10-11
  13. ^ Dulles Letter on Negro The Observer (1901- 2003) [London (UK)] 07 Sep 1958: 13.
  14. ^ Didziak, p.15
  15. ^ a b c Charles J. Ogletree; Austin Sarat (1 January 2009). When Law Fails: Making Sense of Miscarriages of Justice. NYU Press. p. 36. ISBN 978-0-8147-4051-4. Retrieved 9 July 2012. 
  16. ^ Negro's Sentence Protested Abroad New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 27 Aug 1958: 16.
  17. ^ Dudziak, Mary L., "The Case of 'Death for a Dollar Ninety-Five: Finding America in American Injustice", University of Southern California Law School, 2007, p.18
  18. ^ Jr., Charles J. Ogletree; Austin Sarat (1 January 2009). When Law Fails: Making Sense of Miscarriages of Justice. NYU Press. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-8147-6225-7. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights Race and the Image of American Democracy (Berkeley, 2001).
  • Wilson v. State