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William Harper

On the night of January 6, 1931, Dorothy Skaggs was dancing and drinking with a man who was not her husband. To cover her indiscretions and avoid potential prosecution under the Mann Act, which prohibited women from crossing state lines to engage in illicit activities, Skaggs invented a tale for police. She reported that while walking to a guitar lesson in Norfolk, Virginia, around 6:45 pm, a black man hit her over the head, dragged her into an alley, and knocked her unconscious. She claimed that when she’d awoken four hours later, she had discovered she had been raped.

William Harper, a 22-year-old mentally impaired black man who worked as a truck driver for the Coca-Cola Company, was arrested on an unrelated minor charge on January 7, 1931. The following day, Dorothy Skaggs identified Harper as her attacker in a police lineup. Later that day, Harper admitted guilt and signed a written confession. It was discovered much later that the confession was a result of police brutality.

At trial, held just twenty days later, Harper’s attorney employed the insanity defense, but the state provided doctors who testified that though Harper was “dull'” and functioned mentally like a ten-year-old, he was not insane. Harper’s ambitious lawyer also tried to establish an alibi: Harper’s father testified that he was with William at the time of the crime. On the stand, Harper repudiated his confession, saying police had beaten him until he confessed. Interestingly, a police officer who patrolled the alley on the night of the alleged crime never saw anyone in the alley. He testified to walking down the alley two to three times between 6:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. the evening of the alleged rape. Despite the defense’s best efforts, Skaggs’s tearful testimony and her in-court identification of Harper quickly sealed his fate. He was convicted and sentenced to death.

Dorothy Skaggs’s fabricated story would remain intact for only a few days after the trial. On February 7, 1931, the defense produced a witness who had spoken with Skaggs just minutes after the alleged rape. The judge ordered a new trial immediately.

A heavily publicized and highly charged second trial began on March 3, 1931. Skaggs again detailed her attack and identified William Harper as her assailant on the stand. The defense fought back by charging that Skaggs used drugs and that her attack was merely a hallucination. Citizens were shocked when nine witnesses testified that Skaggs was dancing with a married man in Elizabeth, North Carolina, on the evening of the attack. One witness testified that she saw Skaggs at the same club five days after Harper’s conviction. When the witness asked Skaggs why she implicated Harper, Skaggs replied, “Oh, I couldn't lose my husband over this.” Skaggs had also reportedly told the witness that police described Harper before she identified him in the line-up. She bragged that she identified him correctly on her first try. The evening of Friday, March 6, 1931, hundreds of people crowded outside the courthouse to await the verdict. After only 32 minutes of deliberation, the jury found Harper not guilty. He was freed from jail.

Six weeks later, Harper would be arrested again in connection with the same crime. After three weeks of exhaustive investigation, a grand jury indicted Harper for robbery for taking Skaggs’s purse and $1.50. They also indicted Skaggs and her friend, Catherine Ketchum, who had corroborated her story, for perjury. Dorothy Skaggs was found guilty of perjury at her first trial and was sentenced to five years in prison. She was later acquitted at a retrial. Five days after Harper’s indictment for robbery, a judge dismissed the robbery charges against him, putting an end to the case. Harper was freed a second time and reinstated at his job with Coca-Cola.

– Researched by Beth Cruz

State:VA
County:Norfolk
Most Serious Crime:Rape
Reported Crime Date:1931
Convicted:1931
Exonerated:1931
Sentence:Death
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:22
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct