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Family Seeks Exoneration for Executed Black Maid

March 16, 2003|Elliott Minor | Associated Press Writer

CUTHBERT, Ga. — Lena Baker claimed that she was being held against her will by a drunken white man and acted in self-defense when she wrested his gun away and shot him.

For a black maid in the segregated South in 1944, her story was a tough sell to a jury of 12 white men. And rumors that she was romantically involved with victim E. B. Knight did not help. Her murder trial lasted just a day, without one witness called by her court-appointed lawyer.

She was convicted and sentenced to death.

Now relatives of the only woman executed in Georgia's electric chair are returning to Cuthbert to honor Baker and try to clear her name with the state Board of Pardons and Parole.

"The family doesn't need to go down in history with a bad name," said Roosevelt Curry, 59, the grandson of Baker's brother.

Since 1943, the board has granted only two pardons for people who have proved their innocence. One was also granted posthumously for Leo Frank, who was lynched in 1915 while appealing a murder conviction.

Board spokeswoman Heather Hedrick said last week that the agency has yet to receive a pardon application from Baker's family. Requests usually are filed by living people convicted of less serious crimeswho want to restore such rights as voting and owning a gun.

"I can understand why that would be important for her family to get a pardon for her," Hedrick said. "But the point is to restore political and civil rights and, in this case, I don't know if that would be appropriate."

Prosecution witnesses at her trial said that Knight and Baker went on trips together and that he often went to her house and demanded that she go with him.

After she was sentenced, her attorney filed an appeal, but it was dropped after he withdrew from the case. She was executed in March 1945.

John Cole Vodika, director of the Prison and Jail Project, an inmate advocacy program, said the family has a strong case for getting her exonerated.

"She should never have been tried for murder," he said. "It was an obvious injustice. That's what the system did with African Americans who dared resist white men's authority.

"She was a victim of racism, white man's domination over African American women," he said. "In an effort to cover up what really happened, the county moved to treat it as capital murder. It sure appears they wanted to get rid of her quickly and to limit or eliminate anything happening that would further embarrass the family of the deceased."

She was buried in Cuthbert in a grave that went unmarked for five decades, until the congregation of Mount Vernon Baptist Church raised $250 for a concrete slab and marker.

The family is planning a memorial service May 11, Mother's Day, at Mount Vernon, where Baker sang in the choir. Her grave is behind the church.

They will place an empty casket in the church, symbolizing the funeral "our family and friends were cheated of," Curry said .

A family friend took Baker's three children away from Cuthbert after the shooting. Other relatives moved to Florida, New Jersey and other Georgia towns, he said. "Back then, people were scared," Curry said.

Her last living child, Nelsie, 66, lives in Florida, but Curry refused to be more specific.

"Nobody is to go there and mess with her because she is not well," he said. "She's already been hurt enough. Nelsie doesn't even know where her mother is buried, or where her grandfather or uncle are buried."

Baker, who had a sixth-grade education, proclaimed her innocence to the very end. "What I done, I did in self-defense," she said in her final statement. "I have nothing against anyone.... I am ready to meet my God."

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