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Clyde Beale

In late April 1926, Clyde Alonzo Beale, a 26-year-old white man from Nicholas County, West Virginia, went to visit his half-brother, Levi Layne, in Mingo County, West Virginia. Beale was married, with a toddler son, and worked as a farmer. He planned to visit Layne and his wife Minnie for a few weeks while he was off work due to a knee injury.
On May 9, 1926, Beale was assisting Layne in his general store when a local couple – Jesse and Rissie Purdue – came in during a storm. The Purdues had been drinking and Layne joined them for a few more drinks while Beale, not a big drinker, visited with them. After the storm, the party moved over to the Layne house, while Beale reportedly walked up to the post office to mail letters to his family.
According to Beale, he returned to the Layne house to find Rissie and Jesse Purdue and Layne extremely drunk. The Purdues soon began arguing, and Jesse hit Rissie very hard upside the head, leaving her with a bloody nose. Beale said that Rissie then ran out of the house and down by the railroad tracks. Beale followed her to talk with her and bring her back, but Rissie refused. According to Beale, he eventually went back inside to get Jesse, and then the two men went out looking for Rissie, walking to the Purdue house and then along the train tracks with a lantern, but were not able to locate her. Around midnight, Beale claimed he headed home. Jesse Purdue claimed he, too, headed home shortly after that, but Rissie’s sister reported that Jesse did not come home until daybreak. The men searched for her the following day without success.
The body of 24-year-old Rissie Purdue was found along the nearby Tug River on May 12, 1926. Jesse Purdue, Levi Layne, Minnie Layne, and Clyde Beale were charged with her murder, and Beale and Layne were charged with raping her as well. Beale was locked up separately from the other two men, and Minnie was not held in prison at all. The press quickly presented the crime as a vicious attack by an outsider – Clyde Beale. Beale suffered repeated beatings at the hands of state troopers as they unsuccessfully attempted to elicit a confession. After days of this, James Damron, a well-regarded defense attorney, was hired by Beale’s family, and Damron was able to obtain a restraining order from Judge Robert D. Bailey, enjoining the police from removing Beale from his cell or further abusing him.
Shortly after the arrests, Minnie Layne filed for divorce from Levi Layne, claiming that he had been unfaithful to her. The charges against Jesse Purdue and Minnie Layne were dropped, with the prosecution pursuing only the charges against Clyde Beale and Levi Layne. It is not known why charges were not pursued against Jesse Purdue, who had been violent with his wife the evening of her disappearance, who was also known to be jealous and possessive of her, and whose whereabouts were unknown for much of the night of her death.
Mingo County Circuit Court Judge Robert D. Bailey presided over Beale’s trial. During the trial, Minnie Layne, her daughter Maudie Layne, and their maid all testified that they saw Levi Layne and Clyde Beale rape Rissie Purdue in the yard of the Layne house on the evening in question. There was no other evidence to tie Beale to crimes against Rissie Purdue. On cross-examination, these witnesses admitted that Jesse Purdue had struck Rissie on the evening in question, including knocking her head against the window. The physician who testified as to the cause of death said it was some sort of violence to the head. He also said he could not confirm whether or not Rissie Purdue had been sexually assaulted. Beale took the stand and denied his involvement in assaulting or killing Rissie, but the jury was not convinced. On July 24, 1926, Beale was found guilty of first-degree murder, with no recommendation for mercy, which meant he received a mandatory death sentence. His death by hanging was scheduled for September 7, 1926.
Judge Bailey transferred Beale to a jail in a neighboring county because of the abuse that Beale had been suffering in the Mingo County jail. Beale’s execution was delayed while his appeal was pending and until he could serve as a witness at Levi Layne’s trial. Layne’s trial was in March 1927. Levi Layne and Minnie had reconciled and neither Minnie nor their daughter Maudie chose to testify at Layne’s trial. When they later spoke, Layne informed Beale that Maudie was greatly regretful about lying in Beale’s trial and had told him that her mother had forced her to do it to punish Layne because she believed he had been unfaithful. Minnie had wanted to punish Layne by sending his brother, Beale, to prison as well. There was a hung jury in Layne’s trial and ultimately a mistrial was granted.
Before a decision was made regarding whether Layne would have a retrial, Minnie Layne went to see Judge Bailey privately. She confessed to Judge Bailey that she had lied in Beale’s trial and had coerced her daughter into lying as well, threatening to send her to reform school if she did not obey. She said that she never anticipated Beale being sentenced to death and that she could no longer handle the guilt she was feeling about her role in his impending execution. However, when the judge requested Minnie Layne sign a sworn statement to this effect, she refused, saying she had cleared her conscience and it was now the judge’s responsibility to ensure that Beale was not executed.
The prosecutor decided to drop the charges against Levi Layne rather than retry him. When Layne was released, a mob quickly beat him very badly, feeling that justice had not been served for Rissie Purdue. As soon as he recovered from the beating, Layne left Mingo County and changed his name, hoping to never return. Meanwhile, Beale remained in prison, awaiting the ruling on whether he would be granted a new trial. Judge Bailey believed a new trial would be granted, at which time Minnie Layne’s perjury would become apparent to all. However, on November 22, 1927, Beale’s appeal was denied, with the Supreme Court of West Virginia finding no reversible error.
Although he was not permitted to do so without a recommendation for mercy from the jury, Judge Bailey took it upon himself to commute Beale’s death sentence to a prison sentence of 99 years on July 18, 1928, because he knew Beale was innocent and his conscience would not allow him to set a date for Beale’s execution. The prosecutor was outraged and obtained an order from the state Supreme Court requiring Judge Bailey to set an execution date for Beale. Bailey refused to send an innocent man to his death and opted to step down from his position as judge rather than see Beale executed on the basis of perjured testimony. In November 1928, a judge from a neighboring county stepped in to take Judge Bailey’s place on the bench and set a May 1929 execution date for Beale.
After stepping down from the bench, Judge Bailey pursued a grant of clemency for Beale from the new governor of West Virginia, William G. Conley, on the basis that the crucial testimony against Beale was perjured. James Damron, now a U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, who continued to be equally committed to his belief in Beale’s innocence, joined in the effort. On the eve of Beale’s execution, May 9, 1929, Governor Conley commuted Beale’s sentence to life in prison. In March 1933, Governor Conley granted a conditional pardon to Beale, and Beale was released from prison.
On March 29, 1949, Beale received a full and unconditional pardon from Governor Okey Patteson.
- Meghan Barrett Cousino
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1926
Age at the date of crime:26
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation