NEAL CONAN, host:
Sixty years after a black woman was executed for killing a white man, a man she claimed held her as a slave, Lena Baker will be granted a pardon later this month, according to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. Baker was convicted in a one-day trial by an all-white jury. She was put to death in Georgia's electric chair in 1945. The pardon is signed by all five current board members and reads, in part, that a decision to deny clemency back in 1945 was a grievous error and called out for mercy.
Joining us now is John Cole Vodicka, the director of the Prison and Jail Project in Americus, Georgia, the group that helped Lena Baker's descendants press this case.
Nice of you to join us today.
Mr. JOHN COLE VODICKA (Prison and Jail Project): Thanks. Good to be with you.
CONAN: Who was Lena Baker?
Mr. COLE VODICKA: Lena Baker was a 45-year-old woman who got by in Cuthbert, Georgia--this is rural southwest Georgia--by cleaning people's houses and taking care of folks when they needed some taking care of.
CONAN: And how did she get involved with the man for...
Mr. COLE VODICKA: Well, the gentleman that she was convicted of killing and went to the electric chair upon that conviction was an elderly gentleman who had broken a leg, and his family asked Ms. Baker to see to him, and during this period of time, this gentleman was, in essence, sexually abusing Ms. Baker and forcing her to have sex with him on at least a number of occasions.
CONAN: And what happened, as far as we know, in the incident?
Mr. COLE VODICKA: Well, what happened was that one evening, he went looking for her, and Cuthbert's a very small town; found her at her home and encouraged--actually forced her to come to a grist mill, which was a few blocks from the house, and when there, he locked her and demanded sex of her. This came out a little bit in Ms. Baker's testimony, the only time she was allowed to speak in the trial. And she resisted, and he pulled an iron pipe or a piece of metal from the floor and was trying to strike her and to force her into submission. She resisted that. And then he pulled a pistol. And they struggled, and the pistol went off, and he fell dead.
CONAN: I'm no legal expert. This sounds to me like self-defense.
Mr. COLE VODICKA: It's self-defense. There really is no question about it. It's self-defense. And unfortunately, this happened in April of 1944, the incident itself. She was tried by an all-white jury, as you mentioned earlier, in August of that same year. The trial lasted less than half a day. I'm looking at a 10-page trial transcript in a capital case. This jury was home by early afternoon, having convicted her, and the judge had sentenced her to death. And she was--her lawyer, who essentially was a warm body next to her, did file an appeal, which happened in November of '44, and at that same time that he filed the appeal, he quit the case, so there was no one to argue that appeal, and the courts denied it and then the pardon board denied her clemency. In the early part of 1945, she was transported across state to the Reidsville Penitentiary, where she was the only woman in a sea of male faces while she awaited her death by electrocution, which happened in March of '45.
CONAN: How did you get involved in this?
Mr. COLE VODICKA: I stumbled onto it, in a sense. My work takes me throughout southwest Georgia, where I monitor the courtrooms and the jails and the prisons of today. And I was in the Randolph County Clerk of Courts office back in 1998 and was actually seeking information about a present-day case and asked the clerk where I might find that, and she said, `Are you here for the Lena Baker case?' and I said, `I don't know what that's about.' And she pulled this old ledger book up out of the files in the dark recesses of her office and said, `Well, here it is,' and she opened it up to this trial transcript, and I was just astounded.
CONAN: I can understand.
Mr. COLE VODICKA: And I asked her a little bit about it and she was not real forthcoming at the time; although she turned out to be a really great source in the end. But--and then in my times in Randolph County over the next months, I began asking around town and would piece together little bits of information from folks who were old enough to remember the story, but really had no eyewitness involvement.
CONAN: John Cole Vodicka, I know there's more to the story than that. I'm afraid we're out of time. It does involve holding a memorial service, which got covered, which brought up members of her family, who later this month will receive the pardon that was so richly deserved earlier. Thanks very much for being with us today.
Mr. COLE VODICKA: Well, I appreciate the chance. Thank you, too.
CONAN: John Cole Vodicka, director of the Prison and Jail Project in Americus, Georgia.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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