Never Too Late: Pardon Sought For Illinois Man Executed in 1908

Never Too Late: Pardon Sought For Illinois Man Executed in 1908

When it comes to injustices carried out against our people, the list is vast and endless.

In 1908, a Black man named Joe James, was sleeping underneath a tree when he was accosted, beaten. and then arrested for allegedly murdering a white man in Springfield, Illinois. Before his trial and subsequent execution, a mob of white people seeking vengeance for his crime took out their anger on innocent Black people in the state’s capitol.

The race riot saw many Black-owned businesses and homes looted and destroyed. Two Black men were lynched in the weeks leading up to the conviction of James by an all-white jury, according to the legal teams petitioning for an executive pardon nearly 114 years after the execution, the Associated Press reports.

The riots ultimately led to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

“James’ factual innocence is not the focus of this petition, because the passage of time and the destruction of evidence have made it impossible to prove conclusively that James was innocent,” said Steve Drizin, co-director of Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, told the AP.

The Center on Wrongful Convictions and Northeastern University School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project in Boston filed a petition for executive clemency this month. The petition would then go before the review board to determine if it can be presented to Governor J.B. Pritzker for an official pardon.

“Throughout history, we have seen white juries not only convict and execute Black men and women on scant evidence but acquit whites who murder Black people in the face of overwhelming evidence of guilt,” said Margaret Burnham, founding director of Northeastern’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project. “This double standard operated in Springfield in 1908, infecting Springfield’s criminal justice system and depriving James of a fair trial.”

Joe James was accused of entering the home of Clergy Ballard and being discovered by Ballard’s 16-year-old daughter, who awoke to find the man sitting on her bed. After chasing James out of his home, reports at that time said that Ballard was stabbed or cut to death during a struggle that ensued.

James was arrested hours later and put in jail alongside another Black man, George Richardson, who was accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. Afraid for their safety, authorities relocated them to another county, incensing the white people in Sangamon County. Their sights turned to the Black people in town but it is not documented how many were injured or killed in the riot.

In 2020, the site of the riot near downtown Springfield was added to the National Park Service’s African American Civil Rights Network, according to the AP.