On September 15, 1923, 165 money orders and related supplies were stolen at gunpoint from postmaster Charles H. Fite in Polk County, Georgia. The robbery took place in the post office and was witnessed by 14-year-old Van Underwood. When the stolen money orders began being filled, police started investigating 35-year-old Hugh C. Lee, who had a history of passing false money orders and stolen checks.
Postmaster Fite could not identify Lee, but Van Underwood did identify Lee as the robber. Several other eyewitnesses identified Lee as a stranger they had seen in town around the time of the crime. Lee’s handwriting had only a few points of similarity to the forged orders. In November 1924, Lee was tried in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. Since he could not afford counsel, attorney Barry Wright was appointed to represent him. Lee claimed that he was in Detroit, Michigan, at the time of the robbery, but he was unable to provide support to back up his alibi due to lack of funds and the lapse of a year. Lee was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. His motion for a new trial was dismissed.
In January 1925, Will Barrett (who looked very similar to Lee) was arrested in connection with passing forged checks, and Barrett confessed to the robbery for which Lee had been convicted. Barrett’s handwriting matched that on the forged orders and Postmaster Fite identified him as well. After Barrett was convicted, President Calvin Coolidge pardoned Lee on March 13, 1925.
– Meghan Barrett Cousino
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.