Thomas and Meeks Griffin were electrocuted by the state of South Carolina in 1915 for allegedly murdering confederate Civil War veteran John Louis. Last Wednesday, they were pardoned for that murder.
The Griffin brothers' pardons happened with the aid of their great nephew, prominent radio host Tom Joyner.
Joyner participated in Professor Henry Louis Gates' "African American Lives 2" series which aired in 2008 on PBS. While analyzing Tom Joyner's genealogy, Professor Gates informed Joyner that he was related to two men executed in South Carolina in 1915 for a murder many believed they did not commit. Thomas and Meeks Griffin were the brothers of Joyner's grandmother Ruth Griffin. (Video of this portion of the series can be seen here.)
With the assistance of historians and attorneys, Joyner pursued the case to clear his great uncles' names. Last week, the South Carolina Board of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services granted the pardons.
How did Joyner make the case? He used voluminous affidavits collected from locals before the execution, along with a petition filed by those who tried to save the Griffin brothers' lives. After they'd been found guilty at trial (in which their counsel was allowed two days to prepare) and appeals had failed, over 120 locals asked the governor to commute the sentences. Amongst those who signed the petition: two trial jurors, the grand jury foreman, the town's mayor, and a former sheriff.
In a CNN interview, Joyner expressed a belief that his uncles were railroaded in an attempt to preserve the reputation of the victim, an aging confederate veteran who lived in the area. Joyner maintains that John Louis was actually killed by the pimp of a prostitute Louis used. According to Joyner, rather than expose that John Louis frequented a black prostitute, police concocted a case against the Griffin brothers and two other men (Nelson Brice and John Crosby, who were executed with the Griffins).
Reportedly, the man who fingered the Griffin brothers later claimed they had nothing to do with it and that he picked them because he thought their wealth would allow them to hire a lawyer. As Professor Gates pointed out in the series, the Griffins were not simply an upright landowning black family in South Carolina. They had acquired 130 acres. To pay for lawyers, the family had to sell everything it had built up.
After their execution, the Griffin's sister, Ruth, moved to Florida and made a new life. Her grandson had no idea what his grandmother had left behind in South Carolina nor why.
As pointed out by those involved, two coalitions of people helped clear the Griffins' names -- one in 1915 which tried but couldn't convince the governor, and another one in 2009 which built on work done more than 90 years ago.
However, two other men, Nelson Brice and John Crosby were executed along with the Griffin brothers. The petition signed by so many locals asked the governor to save Brice and Crosby as well. No decendants (nor anyone else) have petitioned South Carolina to clear their names.