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A successful black farmer in Florence, South Carolina, Ben Bess served nearly half of a 30-year sentence after being falsely accused in 1914 of raping a white woman who was previously a tenant on his land. For several years prior to 1914, Bess rented land to Maude and Frank Collins, a white couple. The Collinses became deeply indebted to Bess, so he decided not to rent the land to them any longer. Shortly thereafter, in the summer of 1914, Frank Collins accused Bess of criminally assaulting his wife. After Bess was nearly lynched by a mob of his neighbors, police arrested him for the crime.
Bess’s first trial resulted in a hung jury. At his second trial, an all-white jury convicted him of criminal assault. The conviction rested entirely on the testimony of Maude Collins and was corroborated by Frank Collins’s testimony. The jury returned a guilty verdict, but added a very atypical recommendation for mercy rather than the death sentence. Bess maintained his innocence, but, on June 7, 1915, he was sentenced to 30 years’ hard labor in the Court of General Sessions of Florence County. A few days later, it was reported in newspapers that Bess had attempted suicide in his cell at the county jail, with Bess explaining afterward that he would rather die than go to the penitentiary.
Thirteen years later, on April 10, 1928, Maude Collins, then 60 years old, believing that she was on her deathbed, signed an affidavit stating that she had lied at trial. The affidavit read, in part, “Since I have not much longer to live, I hereby desire as much as possible to undo the great wrong I have done this negro, Ben Bess, and I hereby declare my testimony upon the trial of his case to be untrue.”
After Governor John Gardiner Richards received Collins’s affidavit and a petition for the pardon of Ben Bess, he immediately suspended Bess’s sentence and released him from prison on May 4, 1928. Eight days later, Governor Richards granted Bess a full and unconditional pardon. Richards actively sought an avenue to compensate Bess from state funds. After discovering that there was no legal way to compensate Bess, who was now destitute, until the legislature returned to session, he asked readers of The Columbia State to raise $600 to provide for Bess in the short term. Richards also wrote a letter to the solicitor of Florence, suggesting that Collins be presented to the Grand Jury for perjury.
Shortly after Collins learned that she might be prosecuted for perjury, she repudiated her affidavit. Collins, who was illiterate, alleged in a second affidavit that she thought she was signing a statement forgiving Bess, not clearing him. On June 21, 1928, the Grand Jury found that the affidavit from Collins that released Bess was fraudulently secured. The Governor, by verbal order, directed that Bess be returned to prison for “safe keeping.” On July 17, 1928, Richards revoked Bess’s pardon, stating that the pardon was “issued on misinformation and obtained by fraud.”
Sallie Bess, Ben Bess’s wife, had already filed a writ of habeas corpus in the Fifth Judicial Court on July 14, 1928, and on July 19, attorneys for Bess moved for his immediate discharge on the grounds that the pardon was complete and could not be revoked. Judge W.H. Townsend overruled their motion and referred the case to the master in equity of Richland County, directing him to take testimony on the question of fraud. On August 10, the master’s report found that Maude Collins knew the contents of the affidavit when she signed it and that her original affidavit was legal. He saw no evidence of fraud in obtaining the affidavit. On August 23, however, Judge Townsend, while sustaining most of the master’s findings, held that fraud had been practiced in the transaction, and that therefore the pardon was void and never took effect. Maude Collins had requested compensation in exchange for the affidavit, and Sallie Bess had provided Collins with $50.00 in exchange for providing the truth.
On September 7, 1928, the Circuit Court upheld the revocation of the Governor’s pardon and officially refused to discharge Bess from prison in a habeas corpus proceeding. Shortly thereafter, on September 21, another writ of habeas corpus was issued. In November 1928, Bess appeared before Justice T.P. Cothran of the Supreme Court of South Carolina. On October 12, 1929, the court ruled that Ben Bess must be released on the grounds that the Governor did not have the legal right to revoke his pardon. Two days later, Ben Bess was freed for the second time.
- Dolores Kennedy
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.