On November 4, 1935, Tom Jones, a 20-year-old white man, was arrested for the murder of his wife, Flossie Jones, which had occurred a few days earlier in Middlesboro, Kentucky. Tom Jones claimed that his pistol had gone off during a struggle for possession of it after his wife had threatened to take her life. He was arraigned on November 8, 1935, and appointed an attorney. His trial date was set for four days later, on November 12. Jones’s motion for a ten-day continuance was denied, leaving his attorney just four days to prepare his defense in a capital trial.
The prosecution had no eyewitnesses, and its case rested on the testimony of two questionable witnesses. The first was a 6-year-old girl who claimed to have heard Tom Jones say he was going to kill his wife. The second was Virginia Shumate, a woman with a bad reputation around town, who claimed Flossie had told her, as she was dying, that Tom had shot her. On November 15, 1935, Jones was convicted and sentenced to death.
Jones appealed, claiming his conviction on the basis that he did not have time to prepare an adequate defense, but the appeal was denied. The court stated that relief could only come in the form of executive clemency. In 1936, more than two thousand citizens, including the original jurors, signed a petition supporting executive clemency for Jones, but Kentucky Governor A.B. Chandler pledged in his campaign not to use his pardon power and felt bound by that pledge to refrain from granting any pardons.
On April 29, 1937, just a few hours before Jones was to be executed, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky granted a stay of execution on the basis of newly discovered evidence showing that Virginia Shumate wasn’t even near the crime scene. This stay allowed Jones to exhaust his remedies in the state courts.
After a string of unsuccessful appeals, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that evidence that cast doubt on the prosecution’s case would have been discovered before the trial if Jones’ defense attorney had been given a fair amount of time to prepare for the trial. The court stated, “The appellant is not to be sacrificed upon the altar of a formal legalism too literally applied when those who from the beginning sought his life in effect confess error, when impairment of constitutional right may be perceived, and the door to clemency is closed.”
In June 1938, the conviction was reversed without prejudice to the Commonwealth’s right to take further action. No action was taken within the permitted time and the charges were dismissed.
– Researched by Will Robinson
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.