Jimmy Wilson (laborer)

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James "Jimmy" E. Wilson (born 1904),[1] was an American farmhand who was convicted of violent robbery by an Alabama court in 1958 and sentenced to death.[2] His case became a cause célèbre due to the small amount stolen ($1.95) and the fact that Wilson, as an African-American, 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]

Biography[edit]

James Wilson was born in Alabama in 1904.[4] By the 1940 US Census, he was living with his wife in Marion, Perry County, Alabama.[5] By 1957 he was an illiterate farmhand.[6]

The case[edit]

Jimmy Wilson was arrested on July 27, 1957 for stealing $1.95 at night from a 74-year-old[7] white widow, Estelle Barker, in Marion, Alabama.[6] 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.[8] An all white jury convicted Wilson of robbery, and the judge sentenced Wilson to death by electrocution.[9]

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.[10] Wilson admitted that he had been drinking heavily on the day of the incident, and that the robbery was premeditated.[11]

Robbery in Alabama carried the death penalty at the time, although no one had ever been sentenced to death for stealing less than $5.[12]

In September 1958, Wilson's two brothers hired Fred Gray as his legal representative.[6]

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."[13]

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.[14] The US embassy in London received approximately 600 protest letters.[15] 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.[16] Even the Alabama-based Birmingham Post-Herald urged for clemency.[17] The story was used as propaganda in the Communist press.[18]

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.[19] 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."[17]

Wilson was paroled on October 1, 1973, at the age of 70 and having served 16 years in prison.[20] The record after his release is silent.[17]

References[edit]

  1. ^ He was 70 years old on or before October 1, 1973, when he was paroled. The 1940 US Census lists him as 35 years old.
  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 (July 31, 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 July 9, 2012. 
  4. ^ 1940 US Census Transcription
  5. ^ 1940 US Census Transcription
  6. ^ 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] September 12, 1958: 15.
  7. ^ Estelle Barker - Marion, AL. SSN: 416707145 - Death Records
  8. ^ Alabama Negro to Die For a Robbery of $1.95 New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] August 17, 1958: 42.
  9. ^ Ronald E. Kates; Warren Tormey (November 2, 2012). Baseball and Social Class: Essays on the Democratic Game That Isn't. McFarland. pp. 163–4. ISBN 978-1-4766-0088-8. 
  10. ^ "Death Sentence On Negro". The Times (54237). London. August 23, 1958. col C, p. 6. 
  11. ^ Wilson v. State :: 1958 :: Alabama Supreme Court Decisions :: Alabama Case Law :: US Case Law :: US Law :: Justia
  12. ^ Times Daily - Google News Archive Search
  13. ^ "Alabama Negro's Appeal Fails". The Times (54254). London. September 12, 1958. col G, p. 10. 
  14. ^ 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
  15. ^ Dulles Letter on Negro The Observer (1901- 2003) [London (UK)] September 7, 1958: 13.
  16. ^ Didziak, p.15
  17. ^ a b c Charles J. Ogletree; Austin Sarat (January 1, 2009). When Law Fails: Making Sense of Miscarriages of Justice. NYU Press. p. 36. ISBN 978-0-8147-4051-4. Retrieved July 9, 2012. 
  18. ^ Negro's Sentence Protested Abroad New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] August 27, 1958: 16.
  19. ^ 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
  20. ^ Jr., Charles J. Ogletree; Austin Sarat (January 1, 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