Bickett Has a Heart…Opens Some of the Prison Tombs and Extracts Bodies of Men and Women Who Were Buried There When Children…Pardons 21 at One Time…Now Let the Heathen Rage!
By W.T. Bost
Raleigh, Sept. 6—Twenty-one state convicts whose aggregate sentences represent 446 years, plus two life terms, were discharged from the state’s prison today under the second of Governor Bickett’s investigations into cases in which “no human being has been interested.”
The first of these surveys resulted in the pardoning of men and women, likewise babies, whose combined sentences totaled about 300 years. If the initial investigation showed what a careless commonwealth has been North Carolina, the second pretty nearly convicts of criminal indifference. Governor Bickett releases some who are barely yet men, but prisoners who have spent more years in the prison walls than they have lived without. In one instance a New Hanover convict, John Perry, is released after having spent more than twice as many years in prison than he has out. And Perry was went to the penitentiary for life on a crime committed when he was 13 years old. The survey does not yet disclose any life sentences imposed upon infants before they were weaned, although others may be heard from.
In granting these pardons, Governor Bickett gets back to first principles. “On June 13, 1917” Governor Bickett says, “I gave out the following statement, ‘Soon after I came into office I was convinced that there were men and women in the state prison who ought not be there; that their relatives and friends, if they had any, had completely forgotten them, and, being without money and without influence, they were kept in prison simply because no human being had any interest in their release. As a result of the conviction some weeks ago I directed the prison authorities to make a complete survey of the prison, showing the following facts in regard to each and every prisoner, to wit: The crime for which he was committed; the term of his sentence; the time he has served; his behavior while a prisoner; his age and his physical condition.’
“A further report of this survey is now before me. I have made a most careful study of the same, and have personally conducted an investigation in regard to the circumstances under which the crime for which each prisoner mentioned below was convicted. As a result of the study of this survey, and of the investigation made by me, pardons are grated to the 21 prisoners mentioned below.”
All in Class A
Governor Bickett fortifies himself by pardoning all prisoners who are now in class A. The segregation was made easier by the Act of the 1917 general assembly, which came so near really to giving prison reform. It did so much that it stands out as humanitarian. It almost abolished the miserable pastime of beating the naked backs of defenseless convicts and allowed them a chance to hope when they were put on an honor system in which they work without guard and gun. Governor Bickett has been a tremendously busy man, but he has found time and inclination to go minutely into the pardon cases. He has studied them all.
The amazing thing in this investigation is the life imprisonment of a brat who was convicted when 13 and is now just 40. Even this fellow is on the honor roll, but so far as is known, this is the first opportunity that Perry has had. Governor Bickett gives him and half a dozen other children their liberty.
The first released is Josephus Williams, Martin County, sentenced when he was 12 years old to 25 years for burning a store. He has served 15 years, two longer than he had previous lived, has 909 days to his credit and is given full pardon.
George Johnson, Nash, 30 years for burglary committed when 15, served 15 years and has 815 days.
Sweet Sixteen, Not Quite Hanged
Melissa Clegg, Cumberland, when 16 years old, was convicted of murder in the second degree and sent up for 20 years. She has served 15 years and has 1,033 days for good behavior.
Will German, Greene, criminal assault when 12 years old, gets off after serving 11 years with 744 days to his credit. He was sentenced to 15 years.
Elwell Overton, Pasquotank, evidently a most desperate criminal, who when 11 years old, broke into a house and went up for 20 years, is pardoned after 11 years. He has a credit of 464 days. Oh, that 11-year-old beast!
John Perry, New Hanover, life sentence for burglary, convicted when 13, served 27 years. Perfect record in prison.
James Baker, Gates County, murder in the second degree when 18 years old, served 9 ½ years of 25. Lost an eye in a Whitney explosion.
Caesar Collins, Edgecomb County, burglary in the second degree, 30 years sentence, served 21. “On one occasion,” says the governor, “when a guard was paralyzed by a stroke of lightning, this prisoner came to his rescue and virtually took his place. I have made an investigation of the county where the crime was committed, and the authorities say in their opinion that in view of the good record and the long confinement of this prisoner, he has been punished long enough.”
Van Fuller, Orange County, serving 30 years for arson, when to prison 15 years ago. He is 70, has 953 days to his credit and no black marks. “I can see no reason for keeping a man who is 70 years old 25 years longer in confinement when he has obeyed every rule and regulation,” says the Governor.
John Watts, Martin County, 20 years for manslaughter, served 15 ½ with 985 days to his credit.
Gabriel Thomas, Pamlico, 30 years for murder in the second degree, served 21 1/2, has 1,241 days to his credit. He is 56 years old.
William Smarr, Cleveland, burglary, for life. He gets conditional pardon after 19 years. His good record saves him.
Charles Barnes, Greene, 25 years for murder in the second degree, served 18, and has 1,069 credit days. His pardon is conditional.
James Hawlins, New Hanover, 21 years for murder in the second degree, has served 16 years and has 597 days to his credit.
Clem McCoy, Henderson County, 25 years for murder in the second degree, served 16 years and has 597 days to his credit. He is 62 years old and the governor is satisfied that “justice no longer requires his confinement.” Full pardon.
John Wallace, New Hanover, 30 years for murder in the second degree, served 16 and has 971 days for good behavior. Conditional pardon.
George Turner, Orange, five years for larceny and 15 for burglary. He has served 13 ½ years. Former Superintendent J.S. Mann recommends the pardon on the prisoner’s good record. Conditional pardon.
Doubt as to Guilt
Governor Bickett finds doubt as to the guild of Jerry Cobb, Pitt, who has served 11 years of 25 for murder in the second degree. He has 820 days. The Pitt authorities recommend the pardon, which is unconditional.
Fred Peed, Duplin, 15 years for murder in the second degree, served 11 years and has 734 days of good behavior. The pardon is conditional.
John Gudger, Columbus County, 15 years for criminal assault, has served 10. He is 54 years old. The universal agreement is that in all aspects of the case the punishment has been sufficient. Full pardon, with 764 days in his favor is granted.
James Alexander, Rowan County, 20 years for murder in the second degree, has served 16 years but has 1,016 days for good behavior and he would have been discharged in December. He gets a full pardon.
Governor Craig’s “Christmas” gift to the prisoners did much to ring Governor Bickett’s attention to the hopelessness of many prisoners who had no relations to whom they could send the $10 donated by the State. The act at the time caused unfavorable comment in some quarters but friendly legislators readily voted the money back to the prison board.
All this has had the effect of directing attention to the plight of many prisoners. It likewise suggests the hopelessness of a prisoner so far as any reform within the prison management during former administrations. The limitations of the officials who guard and work the prisoners are recognized in this showing. There was no such thing as prison grading.