George Williams, Frank Dove, and Fred Dove, three young African-American men, were convicted of the first-degree murder of Cyrus Jones, a white rural mail carrier in Maysville, North Carolina. They were later exonerated by the recantation of a fourth defendant, sixteen-year-old Willie Hardison. Hardison was tried for the murder first and separately from the other men, and his testimony at their trial – presumably coerced – was partly responsible for their convictions.
Cyrus Jones, who operated an automobile for hire company, as well as serving as a mail carrier, was shot in the head on the road between his home in Maysville, North Carolina, and Swansboro, North Carolina on the evening of August 5, 1922. Because his wife was away, he drove to a neighbor’s house where he stayed until his death several days later. Jones told the neighbor, John Midgett, that “Collins, Williams and Doves” had shot him. Evidence showed that in the community, Willie Hardison was known as “Collins.” The following morning, the Dove brothers, Williams and Hardison were arrested for the shooting and held in jail in Jacksonville.
On the evening of August 9, 1922, Jones died of meningitis caused by the gunshot wound. During the days preceding his death, Jones told various visitors to his bedside that Collins, Williams and the Dove brothers shot him in an attempt to take his car.
A few months later, with Judge E.H. Cranmer presiding at the October term of the Onslow County Superior Court, Willie Hardison was tried and convicted of Jones’ murder. Subsequently, Frank Dove, Fred Dove, and George Williams were tried together and, based on the testimony of Hardison, who appeared as a witness, and the dying declaration of the victim, also convicted of murder in the first degree. All four were sentenced to die by electrocution.
Frank Dove, Fred Dove and George Williams appealed for a new trial. On March 21, 1923, the Supreme Court of North Carolina ruled that there was no error. Execution dates for the Dove brothers and Williams were set when Governor Cameron Morrison signed their death warrants on April 26, 1923. The next day, April 27, 1923, sixteen-year-old Willie Hardison was executed. Before his execution, he confessed that he alone was responsible for the death of Cyrus Jones and that he had implicated the others under threats of lynching and other physical force.
Many letters were written to the Governor requesting executive clemency for the three men. In addition to Judge Cranmer, the prosecutors recommended a full pardon, and a petition requesting these pardons was signed by more than 400 of Onslow County’s leading citizens, including four jurors, the Clerk of the Superior Court, the Swansboro Postmaster, the current sheriff and a former sheriff. On June 28, 1923, Governor Morrison commuted their sentences to life imprisonment.
In August 1925, the Dove brothers and Williams petitioned for an absolute pardon. The petition stated that Willie Hardison implicated them because he was threatened. Once Hardison was in Raleigh and out of harm’s way, he made a full confession. He confessed several times—the last time on the day of his execution. The petition was denied.
A second petition was presented to Governor Angus McLean in February 1928. At this point, the men had served more than five years as model prisoners. Finally, on March 1, 1928, Governor McLean pardoned and freed Frank Dove, Fred Dove and George Williams.
- 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.