In May 1918, a black miner named Cleveland Boyd was arrested for vagrancy by Squire Harry E. Cook, a justice of the peace, in Mercer County, West Virginia. Following Cleveland Boyd’s arrest, he was taken to jail by Squire Cook and Constable Zack Godfrey. En route to the jail, Cleveland Boyd was permitted to stop off at his house to change his shoes, at which time he pulled out two pistols, shot Cook, and attempted to shoot Godfrey. Cook was killed instantly. Following this attack, Cleveland Boyd escaped into the nearby hills and was not seen again.
Six years later, in the spring of 1924, a man named Payne Boyd was arrested in Richmond, Virginia for a minor offense. Richmond police discovered that there was a warrant for the arrest of a Cleveland Boyd, whose description closely matched the man they had in custody. Richmond authorities then sent a photograph of Payne Boyd to Mercer County officials, and he was shortly thereafter identified as Cleveland Boyd and sent to Mercer County on May 2, 1924. Several prominent local citizens of Mercer County identified Payne Boyd as Cleveland Boyd.
Payne Boyd was brought to trial for the murder of Squire Cook on February 5, 1925. He continually insisted that he was not Cleveland Boyd and provided an alibi – that he was in Roanoke, Virginia, waiting to be called to the army at the time of the crime. He also provided many witnesses who confirmed his identity as Payne Boyd. The prosecution, however, called several witnesses, including Constable Godfrey, who identified Payne Boyd as Cleveland Boyd. On February 8, 1925, Payne Boyd was convicted of Cook’s murder. That conviction was later thrown out on technical grounds, and Payne Boyd's second trial commenced on April 29, 1925. On May 2, 1925, a guilty verdict was again returned and Payne Boyd was sentenced to life imprisonment, but an appellate court also soon set this judgment aside as well.
A new trial was scheduled to take place in October 1925 in Cabell County, West Virginia, with the venue change being the result of all the publicity. At about that time, a fingerprint expert of the nearby Huntington Police Department became interested in the case and took fingerprints of Payne Boyd. He compared those fingerprints with the ones found on record for Payne Boyd in the War Department. They were a match, thus proving that Payne Boyd was indeed who he claimed to be. This evidence was submitted to the Cabell County jury, and the jury acquitted him on October 13, 1925. Payne Boyd was released from prison immediately thereafter.
- Lily Becker and 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.