On January 31, 1942, Blanche Jennings said she was assaulted by a Black man in what may have been an attempted purse snatching while Jennings was on her way to a grocery store in Charlotte, North Carolina.
15 minutes after the attack, police officer J.B. Newell arrested 15-year-old John Benton, whom Newell had observed near the scene of the crime. Jennings, who was white, provided a partial identification of Benton. According to Newell, Benton admitted he had assaulted Jennings and that he had committed two other recent purse snatchings in the area. Initial newspaper reports referenced only the attempted purse snatching, but on February 3, Benton was charged with rape, then a capital crime in North Carolina.
Benton’s trial was to begin on March 23, 1942 in Mecklenburg County Superior Court before Judge Clarence E. Blackstock, with District Solicitor John G. Carpenter representing the state. Benton entered a plea of nolo contendre to the charge of assault with intent to commit rape, a lesser non-capital crime. On March 24, 1942, Benton was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
In May 1942, Capt. Frank N. Littlejohn of the Charlotte Police Department wrote to Carpenter in an effort to obtain Benton’s release from prison. Charlotte police had recently arrested Tom Smith, a Black man sought in a series of attacks and purse snatchings, and Smith had confessed to the attack on Jennings. Expressing his belief that Benton was being unjustly imprisoned, Littlejohn requested Carpenter’s assistance in securing parole for Benton. The parole commissioner’s office then launched an investigation into Benton’s case, during which Jennings positively identified Smith as her attacker.
On September 3, 1943, Governor J. Melville Broughton granted Benton a full pardon. In December 1947, the North Carolina Council of State paid Benton $715.30 in compensation for his wrongful conviction.
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.