Author: Youth, 16, executed for 1930 murder was innocent

This is an undated file photo of the electric chair at the Tennessee State prison in Nashville. (Photo: AP)
This is an undated file photo of the electric chair at the Tennessee State prison in Nashville. (Photo: AP)

MEDIA, Pa. (AP) _ 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 six weeks shy of Williams’ 17th birthday, 2,000 volts of electricity were discharged into his body at Rockview Prison in Centre County. Five 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 and who expects to publish this spring 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 first 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 two 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 three men and nine 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 three 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 website, the Delaware County Library System’s newspaper archives, and the official transcript of Williams’ two-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.
“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 two days and Williams was executed five 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.
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 two 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 four 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 third 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 second-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 ssaid 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 nine 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 one of his two 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 two 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,” one of two 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 two 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 two 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 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 one 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.
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.”
Her daughter, Osceola Williams of Upper Chichester, 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.”
Information from: Delaware County Daily Times,

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