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Keeping a justice fight alive

As his ancestor before him, he aims to clear youth executed long ago.

Susie Carter, 85, leafs through a photo album. Her brother was put to death in 1930 for a killing she believes he did not commit. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Susie Carter, 85, leafs through a photo album. Her brother was put to death in 1930 for a killing she believes he did not commit. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)Read more

Samuel Lemon clutched a small bouquet of white carnations as he trudged last week amid the weeds in an abandoned Delaware County cemetery, sidestepping shallow grave depressions and fallen tombstones.

Somewhere under the tall grass and thistle in Chester Township lies the body of Alexander McClay Williams, an African American teen executed 84 years ago for a murder Lemon is convinced he didn't commit.

The Neumann University administrator has spent more than three decades collecting evidence he hopes will exonerate Williams. Among the pieces are records that suggest local officials failed to consider another possible suspect in the killing and might have decided to blame the teen for the murder, then tricked or coerced a confession from him.

"He didn't have the motive. He didn't have the time. He didn't have the ability," Lemon said.

The quest is as much personal as it is scholarly.

It was Lemon's great-grandfather, a defense lawyer named William H. Riley, who tried - and failed - to keep Williams off death row for the Oct. 3, 1930, stabbing of Vida Robare, a white matron at the Glen Mills School for Boys.

A 'troubled' kid

Born in July 1914 into a family of 13 children, Williams grew up poor in a six-room house in Middletown Township. The family raised pigs and chickens and used an outhouse, according to Susie Carter, his younger sister, now 85. Their mother would read to their father, a mushroom worker who was illiterate.

Williams stood 4 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 91 pounds when he was sent to the school in 1926 for setting a fire that caused $25,000 in damage to a barn and livestock, according to school records.

"He was a really troubled kid," said Lemon. "But, there was no record that he had ever been violent."

Lemon found that Williams had stolen 110 tins of boot polish at the school. He suspects the boy was addicted to huffing it.

The Robares were from small Michigan towns where the family was known for drinking, fighting, and domestic abuse, according to their great-niece, Theresa Smithers, 59, from Watervliet, Mich.

Fred and Vida Robare had divorced in November 1921 after five years of marriage. According to Smithers, who found the divorce records while researching her family tree, Vida had cited "extreme cruelty" by her husband as a reason for divorce - a fact that Lemon said never emerged publicly during the investigation into her death.

On the day she died, the 48 boys in her care were in class or working in the fields and not due back for hours. Authorities determined that the athletic house mother was attacked in her bedroom between 1:30 and 4 p.m. She was stabbed 47 times with an ice pick, two of her ribs were broken, and her skull was fractured. Her body was found partially clothed on her bed.

A bloody handprint was on the wallpaper near the door. A wristwatch and $15 were on the bureau. But her key ring was missing, which authorities believed the killer took and used to escape from a basement door.

Initially, authorities did not suspect the boys.

"This crime was committed by a full grown and strong man. The woman was unmistakably athletic and could have fought off a boy," Chief County Detective Oliver N. Smith was quoted as saying in a Chester Times article the day after the murder.

The Glen Mills superintendent, Major H.B. Hickman, told the newspaper: "I do not suspect any of our boys of having committed this sickening crime."

Said Lemon: "There was no way this little pip-squeak [Williams] could have done that level of damage against this strong woman."

But Williams was charged.

Altered forms

In his research, Lemon obtained a copy of the death certificate, dated Oct. 4, 1930.

On it, someone had written "caused by an ice pick in the hands of Alexander McClay Williams" after the cause of death, although in a different ink.

Williams didn't confess until three days later, according to published reports. There is no record of what led to the confession. The teen had been on a work detail at the school and was sent to get shovels about the same time Vida Robare was killed, Lemon said.

In his confession, Williams allegedly told police he wanted to rape the victim to get even with Fred Robare for alleged "ill treatment," according to news reports at the time.

But in a separate confession to authorities, the teen allegedly admitted breaking into the house to steal boot polish, hearing the victim upstairs, grabbing an ice pick, and stabbing Vida Robare about "20 to 25 times." He wiped off his hands so he wouldn't leave prints, according to published reports.

A judge appointed Lemon's great-grandfather to represent Williams. William Ridley, the son of runaway slaves, had been the first African American lawyer admitted to the Delaware County bar.

After a two-day trial, a jury of nine women and three men found Williams guilty. Ridley did not try to argue innocence or offer an alibi but instead gave an "impassioned plea" to save his client from death row.

According to his sister, Williams shouted out in court after the sentence was announced that he had been promised he wouldn't be executed if he confessed to the killing.

He was put to death June 8, 1931, at Rockville Prison in Bellefonte, Pa.

Carter said Williams' family always believed he was railroaded. "They did that to black people then," she said.

It's not a far-fetched theory, according to Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

He said Williams was particularly vulnerable to flaws in the justice system because of his age, mental status, family situation, and because he was accused of an interracial murder. "The history of the death penalty is inextricably intertwined with the history of race relations in the United States," Dunham said.

Smithers believes Vida Robare was killed by her ex-husband in a crime of passion.

According to Lemon's research, Fred Robare was the last person to see her alive and the first to discover her body. But even those details are murky.

In a Chester Times article from the time, Fred Robare said he had returned to the cottage at 5 p.m. with 11 boys and found the door unlocked. But a Michigan paper reported that he told his parents he was alone when he found the body.

After the killing, Fred Robare left his son with relatives in Minnesota and moved to Baltimore. Later, he remarried and moved to Los Angeles.

He died in 1953.

Seeking another look

Exonerating Williams and vacating his conviction might be difficult under Pennsylvania law because the teen is already dead, said Michael Wiseman, a Philadelphia attorney who specializes in capital cases. But it might be possible to ask for a posthumous pardon from the Board of Pardons and Parole or to get Williams' records expunged, he said.

Lemon, who holds a doctorate in education and is a director in Neumann's division of continuing and adult studies, has enlisted his cousin, Enrique Latoison, a Delaware County defense attorney. Latoison said he plans to file a motion to bring the case before a judge. "I will at least have my day in court to discuss reopening the case," Latoison said.

Among those in Lemon's corner is Robare's great-niece. She said she wanted the truth to come out.

"I had gone years wondering if anyone else saw this as a crime of domestic violence," Smithers said. "I want to right a wrong if it can be done."