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Editorial: Justice for Alexander McClay Williams

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Delaware County Daily Times
POSTED: May 16, 2017 8:45PM EDT

Longtime Delco educator Sam Lemon is the great-grandson of William Ridley, the attorney who represented Alexander McClay Williams. Lemon has worked to clear the teen and written a book on the circumstances surrounding Williams’ trial and execution – the youngest person ever put to death in Pennsylvania. DIGITAL FIRST MEDIA FILE IMAGE

The old saying when it comes to American jurisprudence is that “the wheels of justice turn slowly.”

In the case of Alexander McClay Williams, that would be 86 years, to be exact.

In 1931 Williams, a 16-year-old Delaware County youth, was put to death after being convicted in the brutal murder of a matron at Glen Mills School. Vida Robare, 34, was found in the second-floor bedroom of her on-site cottage. She had been stabbed 47 times with an icepick in October 1930. She also suffered a fractured skull and broken ribs. The crime appeared to be one of passion.

Williams, an African-American youth, had been sent to the Glen Mills School for Boys when he was 12 for setting fire to a barn.

That was 1931. At the time, the Delco youth claimed the mantle of being the youngest person ever executed in Pennsylvania. It is a shameful label that still clings to the case today.

But eight decades later, that is a little less so, thanks to the tireless work of several local advocates and attorneys who exposed the prosecution of Williams as a “rush to judgment” not supported by the evidence, and in fact very likely a miscarriage of justice. It’s a case that continues to confound – and sadden.

Last week Delaware County Judge John Capuzzi vacated the conviction of Alexander McClay Williams.

It took a lot longer than it should have, but justice has finally been meted out.

Sort of.

Judge’s Capuzzi’s ruling expunges the arrest from Williams’ record. But it does not necessarily clear his name. That is something Williams’ family and supporters vow they will continue to seek – regardless how long it takes.

Williams became the youngest person ever executed in Pennsylvania, charged, tried, convicted and put to death in an unheard of short span of time. The case was rife with allegations of witness tampering, racial bias and what many claim is a forced confession from the youth. None of that slowed down Williams’ date with the executioner.

The wheels of justice could not churn faster in terms of the teen’s prosecution. He was arrested, tried and convicted in less than a year.

Williams was represented at trial by William H. Ridley, the first African-American lawyer in the county, who had been assigned the case. Defense attorney Robert Keller, who has championed the push to clear Williams’ record – and name – in asking the court to reconsider the conviction, pointed out Ridley had just two months to mount a defense; the trial lasted just two days. No defense witnesses were called; the prosecution was able to provide three confessions of questionable origin.

An all-white Delaware County jury deliberated for four hours before convicting the youth in Robare’s murder. Williams was executed June 8, 1931, about six weeks shy of his 17th birthday, and less than a year from the date of the murder.

The case has been something of an obsession for Sam Lemon. The longtime Delco educator is Ridley’s great-grandson. He has spent 30 years researching the case and is convinced it was a miscarriage of justice. He has written a book about the case titled, “The Case That Shocked the County.” He has done several public presentations on the notorious case.

Importantly, while Judge Capuzzi’s ruling vacated the criminal record of McClay Williams, it keeps the court file and administrative docket intact.

Why is that so important?

So that this kind of injustice might never happen again.

Lemon teamed with Keller in championing the cause of McClay Williams.

“We wanted the criminal record expunged and at the same time we wanted the court file and docket to remain so that we have a historical record of the case,” Keller said. “We want the public to be aware of the trial and for them to be able to view the timeline from the date of conviction, and the time of arrest, and how quickly he was put to death.”

Family members remain convinced McClay was wrongly convicted, and while expungement does erase his conviction, it does not touch on the matter of his guilt or innocence.

They vow to continue the fight.

In the case of Alexander McClay Williams, the wheels of justice likely moved all too fast – before grinding to a halt.

Eighty-six years later, McClay Williams’ conviction has finally been erased.

Erasing the stain this case placed on justice likely will take a little longer.

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