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John Benton

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.

- Meghan Barrett Cousino
Most Serious Crime:Assault
Reported Crime Date:1942
Sentence:15 years
Age at the date of crime:15
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession