Bookshelf: Unsolved murder in 1948 Carrollton subject of new book

Chris Joyner is the author of "The Three Death Sentences of Clarence Henderson."
Courtesy of Abrams Books
caption arrowCaption
Chris Joyner is the author of "The Three Death Sentences of Clarence Henderson." Courtesy of Abrams Books

Credit: Abrams Books

Credit: Abrams Books

‘The Three Death Sentences of Clarence Henderson’ a story of post-war America.

On a rainy, moonless Halloween night in 1948, Army veteran and Georgia Tech sophomore Buddy Stevens, 22, was in a parked car with 18-year-old Nan Turner on a dead-end road in Carrollton, when a man wielding a flashlight forced them out of the vehicle at gunpoint and marched them through a plowed cotton field where he assaulted Turner and shot Stevens dead.

Although Turner could not identify her attacker, she indicated that his voice sounded like a Black male. Based on that dubious lead, “white authorities grabbed the Black community and shook it hard to find a suspect until they were able to cough up Clarence Henderson,” said Chris Joyner, 52, an investigative reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and author of “The Three Death Sentences of Clarence Henderson” (Abrams Books, $26).

“The fact that he was a rough character is one of the reasons why he became an acceptable suspect in the first place,” Joyner said about the 27-year-old sharecropper. “That didn’t make him guilty of murder. That made him a bootlegger and a gambler and probably somebody you didn’t want to mess with, but he was also a father and a provider for his family.”

The evidence against Henderson was slim to nothing, most of it concerning the alleged murder weapon, a silver Smith & Wesson .38 revolver with a black grip. Henderson was among the gun’s many owners, who alternately sold, pawned and loaned the gun to a large cast of characters. Exactly who possessed the gun when the crime occurred was debatable.

Three times Henderson went to trial for Stevens’ murder, three times he was convicted, and sentenced to die in the electric chair, and three times his convictions were overturned. Meanwhile, many believe that Buddy Stevens’ real murderer remained free.

It’s an intriguing cold case story that might have remained under the radar if not for Joyner’s deeply researched book, which details the crime and the trials. He credits his father for bringing the story to his attention.

Joyner was early in his newspaper career at the Times-Georgian, the daily in Carrollton, when his father, Van B. Joyner Jr., suggested his son read up on the case in the paper’s archives. Having attended West Georgia College (now the University of West Georgia) in the ‘40s, he knew Buddy Stevens in passing.

At his father’s encouragement, Joyner pulled out the bound volumes and began reading up on the case.

“I got interested in how big of a story it was for Carrollton. It was covered in such great detail, and it was clearly a traumatic event for the community, so I was initially interested in it from that standpoint,” said Joyner

But the more he read, the more he realized how much the story reflected the times.

“Coming out of World War II, Carrollton was like a lot of communities. It had spent years in the Depression, and there was a lot of pent up optimism for what could happen in the United States after the war. An event like the death of a young man like Buddy Stevens, particularly an anonymous violent crime, showed how fragile that optimism was,” said Joyner.

“While people were welcoming change and the opportunity to move out of the Depression and war, there were also concerns about what the changes were going to mean — social changes, changes to the racial dynamic.”

That concern played out in the rush to convict a Black man for the crime.

“It was an important narrative at the time that if white girls are being raped, that the culprit would be Black,” said Joyner. “It’s a theme in American history that white women were constantly imperiled by Black men. When Nan, either at someone’s prompting or by her own belief, said that her captor sounded like he was Black, that fatally flawed the investigation from then on.”

There are plenty of bad actors in “The Three Death Sentences of Clarence Henderson,” but there are some memorable heroes, too. One of them is defense attorney Dan Duke, who made a name for himself battling the Ku Klux Klan and championing civil rights, and later became a state judge.

“He was a crusading attorney with a different vision of what the South could be. He was an extraordinary person. His passion sometimes made him his own worst enemy, but he was the best that the white South could produce in terms of his moral clarity and his energy for justice. He was really an outstanding person to step in for somebody like Clarence Henderson, whose very life was a stake. I do think he’s a heroic figure,” said Joyner.

He also points to Black defense attorneys E.E. Moore Jr. and S.S. Robinson, who hired Dan Duke to be the public face of the defense.

They “were equally heroic and even more so because there was so much they had to risk,” said Joyner. “They knew they had to hire Dan Duke to be the voice of the defense. They were not going to go into Carrollton, Georgia, in front of a white judge and a white jury, and not have a white defense attorney saying the words in court.”

Unfortunately, that means getting their voices represented in the book was a challenge, said Joyner.

“Moore and Robinson don’t really show up in the transcripts and most of the trial coverage at the time,” he said. “That’s sort of a real tragedy that their voices are lost to us, but I was able to resurrect some from the Black press and the NAACP national archives.”

Speaking of the NAACP, the organization also played a major role in freeing Henderson by providing financial support for the defense while waging its own battle to distance itself from communist sympathizers who became involved in hopes of leveraging racial discord for purposes of social revolution — just one more way this story reflects the times.

Joyner’s father died last June, so he never got to see the book he inspired his son to write. But he knew it was in the works, and he’s honored in the dedication and the acknowledgements. The timing may be bittersweet, but “The Three Death Sentences of Clarence Henderson” stands as a testament to the fact that Van B. Joyner Jr. knew a good story when he heard one.

Joyner will read and discuss the book at noon Jan. 22 at Horton’s Bookshop (410 Adamson Square, Carrollton. hortonsbooks.indielite.org).

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to The Atlanta Journal Constitution. Contact her at svanatten@ajc.com and follow her on Twitter at @svanatten.