On the night of May 13, 1933, elderly fish merchant Robert M. Darsey was robbed and beaten on his way home from work in Pompano (now Pompano Beach), Florida. Darsey never regained consciousness and died from head wounds. Police quickly rounded up between 30 to 40 Black men and interrogated them about the murder. Among those detained were 21-year-old Isiah Chambers (also referenced as Izell Chambers), 21-year-old Charlie Davis, 19-year-old Jack Williamson, and 32-year-old Walter Woodward (also referenced as Walter Woodard).
Two days after the crime, Broward County Sheriff Walter Clark and convict guard Captain J.T. Williams took a group of the detained men, including Williamson and Chambers, to the Dade County jail in Miami, Florida, for a night. Clark said this move was to protect the men from possible mob violence. The prisoners were returned to the Fort Lauderdale jail the next day, where they were questioned one at a time by a group of up to 10 white men, including police officers, prison employees, and citizens of the community. As of May 20, many of the suspects were still in jail, still being subjected to ongoing questioning and unable to speak with counsel, family, or friends. The intensity of the interrogations increased. On May 21, Woodward confessed that he and others had robbed and beaten Darsey. By May 22, Chambers, Davis, and Williamson had also signed confessions to their involvement in the robbery and murder of Darsey.
On May 22, 1933, a grand jury indicted Chambers, Davis, Williamson, and Woodward on first-degree murder charges. The four men were tenant farmers with little education or financial means. Woodward and Williamson, represented by W.C. Mather, entered guilty pleas on May 24, 1933. The same day, Chambers and Davis, represented by Elbert B. Griffis, pleaded not guilty.
The jury trial of Chambers and Davis was scheduled to begin June 12, 1933 before Broward County Circuit Judge George W. Tedder. The morning of the trial, shortly before the jury was impaneled, Davis withdrew his plea of not guilty and entered a guilty plea. Broward County State’s Attorney Louis F. Maire prosecuted the case against Chambers, relying on the four confessions. Griffis offered little in the way of a defense. According to a newspaper account of the trial, Griffis told the jury that Chambers had no intention of murdering Darsey at the time of the robbery.
After 30 minutes of deliberation, the jury found Chambers guilty of first-degree murder without a recommendation of mercy on June 13, 1933. Before recessing the court, Judge Tedder complimented Sheriff Clark on his efficient handling of the case and on obtaining confessions from the four men without the use of coercion or threats.
On June 17, 1933, Judge Tedder sentenced Chambers, Davis, Williamson, and Woodward to death in the electric chair. Florida Governor Dave Sholtz signed their death warrants on July 29, 1933, resulting in their transfer to death row at the Florida State Prison. A quadruple electrocution was scheduled for August 7, 1933. On August 4, the defendants’ new attorney, D.W. Perkins, filed a writ of error with the Florida Supreme Court. The court stayed the executions for consideration of the writ. The writ claimed that the defendants’ confessions were the result of brutality and force on the part of Broward County police officers and others, and that the defendants had been rushed to trial without time to secure attorneys of their choice. On December 19, 1933, the Florida Supreme Court affirmed the men’s convictions and death sentences.
Following this ruling, S.D. McGill, a Black civil rights attorney involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, took over representation of the four defendants. On January 11, 1934, McGill filed a petition for a writ of error with the Florida Supreme Court on the basis that the defendants’ confessions had been coerced. The Supreme Court stayed the executions and remanded the case to Broward Circuit Court for a hearing on the petition.
Judge Tedder heard the petition in April 1934. The four defendants each testified, describing threats to their lives and beatings with clubs, rubber hoses, and pistols at the hands of Sheriff Clark, convict guard Williams, and former Pompano Police Chief F.C. Mattox. The defendants testified that their lives had also been threatened if they disclosed the methods used to force their confessions. They showed scars on their bodies and testified that they were the results of the beatings. The state offered testimony from 27 witnesses, including a doctor who testified that the scars the defendants claimed were longstanding and not from the beatings. Other witnesses for the state included trial jurors and witnesses from the jail. Tedder denied the petition on May 3, 1934.
McGill appealed Tedder’s ruling to the Florida Supreme Court and requested a jury hearing on the issue of the voluntariness of the confessions. The Florida Supreme Court reviewed this motion and, in January 1935, remanded the case for a jury hearing on this issue.
The jury hearing began February 21, 1935, with Tedder presiding and Maire representing the state. The state called more than 20 witnesses, including defense attorney Elbert Griffis, who testified that his former clients had not indicated that they had been compelled to confess.
Chambers, Davis, Williamson, and Woodward each testified before the jury. The men described the use of brutality and threats to force their confessions. Williamson testified that Clark and Williams struck him across the head with a pistol barrel and blackjack. He showed the jury a scar on his head and testified that it resulted from having a rope placed around his neck and being pulled upward until his head hit the ceiling of the jail. Woodward testified that police beat him and threatened him with a “necktie party” before he confessed. Jacksonville physician Dr. R.L. Brown testified that he had found bruises on the defendants when he examined them before their transfer to Raiford prison.
The jury found that the confessions were voluntary. On this basis, Tedder again denied the defendants’ petition for writ of error on February 22, 1935. In April 1935, the defendants filed a petition for a writ of error on the basis of improper jury instructions. In early 1936, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Judge Tedder’s instructions to the jury had been erroneous at the February 1935 hearing, and the court granted another hearing on the voluntariness of the confessions.
On June 29, 1936, Tedder granted the defense’s change of venue request and the hearing was moved to West Palm Beach Circuit Court before Judge C.E. Chillingworth. Maire continued to represent the state. The four defendants testified before the jury about the beatings and threats that they endured before confessing. The state called 20 witnesses – police officers, trial jurors, and other witnesses from the jail – to dispute the defendants’ claims. On October 15, 1936, the jury found that the confessions had been voluntary.
After this ruling, McGill filed a motion for a new trial based on 15 alleged errors on the part of the trial court. This motion reached the Florida Supreme Court, which denied the motion and affirmed the men’s death sentences on March 3, 1939.
In November 1939, the U.S. Supreme Court granted petitions to review the Florida Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the death sentences of Chambers, Davis, Woodward, and Williamson. The case had garnered national attention by this time and was often dubbed “Florida’s Scottsboro” or “Little Scottsboro,” in reference to the racially charged case out of Scottsboro, Alabama, that had culminated in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Powell v. Alabama in 1932. In Powell, the Court held that 14th Amendment’s right to due process in capital cases includes the right to effective legal counsel, including adequate time and aid to prepare a defense.
In January 1940, McGill, joined by Leon A. Ransom of the NAACP National Legal Committee, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that his clients’ constitutional due process rights had been violated. Thurgood Marshall, special counsel for the NAACP, appeared on the defendants’ brief but did not participate in the courtroom arguments. On February 12, 1940, the Supreme Court reversed the four men’s convictions and ruled that their confessions had been obtained through lawless means. Justice Hugo L. Black wrote for the unanimous court, finding that “to permit human lives to be forfeited upon confessions thus obtained would make of the constitutional requirement of due process of law a meaningless symbol.”
In July 1940, it was reported that after long periods in solitary confinement, Chambers had gone insane and was transferred to the State Hospital at Chattahoochee in a strait jacket. Available records do not indicate any further action taken in his legal case. Davis, Williamson, and Woodward remained on death row at Raiford prison until September 1940, when they were transferred back to the Palm Beach County jail in anticipation of their new trial.
On December 12, 1940, Judge Chillingworth quashed the charges against Davis, Williamson, and Woodward on the basis that there had been no Black jurors on the grand jury that indicted them. The three men were then immediately arrested and charged again.
The jury trial of Davis, Williamson, and Woodward began on March 9, 1942 in West Palm Beach Circuit Court before Judge Chillingworth. After the ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, the defendants’ confessions were no longer admissible as evidence. Chillingworth entered directed verdicts for the three defendants, stating that without their confessions, the state’s evidence “could point to any number of people.” A reporter in the courtroom described the defendants as looking stunned and exhibiting no signs of joy about their new freedom. Davis, Williamson, and Woodward expressed uncertainty about where they would go next after spending the past nine years in prison.
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.