Murder charges dropped against Carrollton sharecropper in historic court hearing

A Black man who could have been executed in the 1948 shooting of a white man, was cleared posthumously after a journalist’s book raised questions about the case against him

On the afternoon of Jan. 30, 1950, Clarence Henderson sat in the witness box in a cavernous courtroom in Carrollton and pleaded for his life.

“The night of this killing, the night it occurred, I was at home in my bed asleep,” the 27-year-old Henderson said. “I am innocent.”

His pleadings held no sway. The all-white, all-male jury deliberated less than two hours before finding the Black sharecropper guilty of the Oct. 31, 1948, murder of Carl “Buddy” Stevens, Jr., a white man. Despite an entirely circumstantial case with no eyewitnesses, the verdict came with no recommendation of mercy, and the judge sentenced Henderson to die in Georgia’s electric chair.

A biracial trio of defense attorneys, funded by the NAACP, successfully overturned that verdict and two more as Carroll County prosecutors tried and convicted Henderson twice more on the same charge. When they declined to prosecute him a fourth time, Henderson was allowed to post bond, but the murder charges never went away.

Henderson died more than 40 years ago an accused murderer, but that changed Thursday in a remarkable hearing before a Carroll County judge who dismissed the still-active charges against Henderson in the same courtroom where he had been convicted three times.

“This is a sad case that affected many families,” Superior Court Judge Erica Tisinger said. “Although the wheels of justice can often turn slow, as the Henderson family has felt, the long arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. I believe that happens today as I sign this order.”

Henderson’s family members, including grandchildren and great-grandchildren, were in the courtroom as the judge read her opinion that brought something approaching justice to a case that was emblematic of the Jim Crow-era court system in the South.

Adrian Dardan, a great-grandson, said the years his ancestor spent in jail fighting the charges left Clarence Henderson an angry man, robbing his family of the kind of closeness they might have had with him.

“We are never getting back what our family has lost,” he said. “Justice was due then. This is just closure.”

Several family members spoke in court about the case at the judge’s invitation. Lutricia Henderson Gray, Henderson’s last surviving child, attempted to talk about what the dismissal meant to her but was overcome with emotion. Her daughter Melody Darden spoke on her behalf.

“It was always a shadow over the family,” said Darden. “I’m so grateful for today.”

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Ernest Henderson, Clarence Henderson’s oldest grandchild, said he was gratified to see justice served for his grandfather.

“After all these years,” he said to the judge, “thank you.”

Coweta Circuit District Attorney Herbert Cranford Jr. brought the dismissal motion in January after reviewing court records including three separate reversals by the Supreme Court of Georgia. Cranford’s logic was that there was not evidence to support Henderson’s convictions. Cranford was delivering closing arguments in a separate trial Thursday, but his chief assistant, Jep Bendinger, was present and delivered the motion.

“We are not chained to the mistakes of the past. It’s never too late to do the right thing.” Bendinger said.

Two cousins of Buddy Stevens attended and afterwards hugged members of Henderson’s family outside the courtroom. Michael Holmes said they may never know who killed his cousin.

“It’s fair to say it had a lasting, generational impact on our family,” Holmes said of Stevens’ murder. “The question of who killed Buddy is still open.”

The reexamination of Henderson’s case was prompted by the book “The Three Death Sentences of Clarence Henderson.” The book, published last year, used court records, contemporary news accounts and archival records to tell the story of the Stevens murder and Henderson’s struggle to regain his freedom.

Credit: File

Credit: File

Cranford agreed to reopen the case after a member of the Henderson family requested it, and in his motion the district attorney said he received widespread community support for his review.

Stevens was shot to death while defending his girlfriend, Nan Turner, from a masked would-be rapist who had abducted the couple at gunpoint and marched them through a moonless night to a secluded area that is now the golf course at the Sunset Hills Country Club. Turner escaped but never got a look at her attacker, only telling police that the man “sounded like a Negro.”

The murder was big news, especially in the intensely segregated and racially tense atmosphere of Georgia in the decade after World War II. State and local investigators had been looking for a suspect in the Stevens murder for 15 months when they arrested Henderson in December 1949.

Police landed on Henderson as a suspect after discovering a .38 Special revolver in an Atlanta pawn shop that had been taken in a similar attack in Carroll County two months before the Stevens murder. An analyst in the Fulton County Crime Lab matched test bullets fired from the gun to a bullet extracted from Stevens’ leg, and police traced the gun through several hands to Henderson who prosecutors claimed owned it just long enough to have killed Stevens.

Henderson’s first trial came just weeks after his arrest and lasted just one day. That trial was held under armed guard and one of the prosecutors was the older brother of the judge. Henderson’s white, court-appointed attorneys called no witnesses and made rare objections to the state’s case.

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

The NAACP funded Henderson’s appeal, hiring S.S. Robinson and E.E. Moore Jr., two pioneering Black attorneys from Atlanta, to file the first appeal to the state supreme court. When that verdict was reversed, the NAACP added Daniel Duke, a crusading white attorney who, as a prosecutor, had taken on the Ku Klux Klan and a neo-fascist group called the Columbians.

In the second trial, Robinson, Moore and Duke challenged the state’s theory that Henderson ever owned the gun. On cross-examination, witnesses who said they saw Henderson with a revolver claimed they saw him with it prior to when it was stolen. In essence, they saw a different gun.

Duke, working on a shoestring budget, was Henderson’s sole attorney for the third trial. In that trial, Duke challenged the forensics that tied the revolver to the murder. The bullet retrieved from Stevens’ body was a 9 mm round, which would not load properly in a .38 revolver unless the casing was filed down to make it fit. In a lengthy and highly technical cross-examination of the crime lab analyst, Duke portrayed the state’s expert as sloppy and poorly trained and called his boss, the head of the crime lab, as a defense witness to testify that he did not believe the bullet matched the gun.

Nevertheless, both the second and third trials ended with unanimous verdicts of guilty. And both were subsequently overturned by the supreme court for lack of evidence.

In his motion, Cranford said the modern interpretation of the Constitution’s Double Jeopardy Clause would have prohibited Henderson from being retried on the same charge, but no such protections existed for criminal defendants at the time.