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William Wellmon

In August of 1942, in the North Carolina Superior Court, William Mason Wellmon (also referenced as William Mason Wellman), a black resident of Washington, D.C., was convicted of raping an 67-year-old white woman in her Iredell County, North Carolina, home the previous year. Wellmon, an employee of the Charles H. Thompson Company, claimed he was working in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, for three weeks, from January 24, 1941 until February 19, 1941. The rape, which occurred on February 11, took place more than 350 miles from Wellmon’s work site in Fort Belvoir.
 
The attack on the elderly woman, Cora Sowers, occurred just after 1:30 p.m. The victim and her neighbor, who allegedly saw Wellmon walking within 500 feet of the victim’s house at around 2:00 p.m. on the day of the attack, identified him following his arrest, which came after “considerable investigation.” 
 
Wellmon was extradited to North Carolina and, on August 4, 1942, incarcerated in the common jail of Mecklenburg County. Wellmon was without counsel; therefore, on August 5, 1942, the court assigned an attorney to represent him, which he supplemented with his own private counsel on August 9, 1942. His trial began two days later.
 
William Wellmon had a substantial alibi. On the day of the crime, he claimed he was working 350 miles from the scene of the rape. Prior to the trial, Wellmon had petitioned the court to grant a continuance because there were witnesses in Washington, D.C. who could testify that he was working at the time of the crime. The court refused to grant the continuance, asking that the evidence be admitted in written form. However, Wellmon’s attorney was able to call to the stand one witness, John Mitchell, who had worked with Wellmon at Fort Belvoir and who testified that Wellmon had been at work on the day of the crime.
 
Countering Mitchell’s testimony was that of the victim and her neighbor, who identified Wellmon as the attacker. Additionally, the State called two witnesses who would undermine the testimonies of both Wellmon and John Mitchell—J.C. Carver, a Washington police officer, and J.W. Moore, the sheriff of Iredell County. Both of these witnesses testified that before Wellmon’s extradition to North Carolina, Mitchell told them that he had not seen the defendant since December of 1939; therefore, he would not be able to attest to Wellmon’s whereabouts on the day of the rape. Although Mitchell denied ever making this statement, the jury returned a verdict of guilty, and Wellmon was sentenced to death.
 
Wellmon filed an appeal on November 4, 1942, and the hearing allowed Wellmon’s counsel to set forth two arguments of error. The first concerned the court’s refusal to grant a continuance before his trial, thus denying him an opportunity to substantiate his alibi. The appellate court found that the lower court did not abuse its discretion. The second argument of error dealt with the statements made in court by Officer Carver and Sheriff Moore concerning the whereabouts of Wellmon on the day of the crime. According to the appellate court, the two officers properly impeached John Mitchell’s testimony. Therefore, the conviction was affirmed and the only option left to Wellmon was executive clemency.
 
An investigation by the State Parole Commission, ordered after a routine request for executive clemency, showed that on the day of the crime, Wellmon was “unquestionably” at work in Fort Belvoir from 7:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Proof came in the form of a signed payroll receipt, which had been on file at the office of the U.S. Comptroller General, but had not been available at the time of Wellmon’s initial trial. An experienced handwriting expert employed by the state certified the authenticity of the signature on the receipt. His professional opinion was confirmed by two others—the timekeeper, who was able to identify the payroll, and the government inspector, who witnessed Wellmon’s signature on the payroll and gave him his pay.
 
On April 15, 1943, the day on which Wellmon was to be executed, Governor J. Melville Broughton granted him a full pardon. Wellmon had already been seated in the electric chair when the reprieve came. This information was verified by Nathan Rice, warden of the North Carolina Central Prison.
 
Several years later, the November 1945 issue of Amazing Detective Magazine reported that on the morning of Wellmon’s scheduled execution, Governor Broughton received word that another man had confessed to the crime.
 
In 1971, the State of North Carolina awarded Wellmon $986.40 for his eight months on death row and near execution.
 
– Researched by Elizabeth Moum and Dolores Kennedy
State:NC
County:Iredell
Most Serious Crime:Rape
Reported Crime Date:1941
Convicted:1942
Exonerated:1943
Sentence:Death
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:36
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID