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Their great-nephew, syndicated talk show host Tom Joyner, learned about their existence—and their conviction—two years ago while watching the PBS documentary “African American Lives 2,” which was researched and reported by Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates and Professor Finkelman.
Joyner contacted the two professors, and they began to work together to clear the Griffins’ names because historical records indicated the brothers were framed by another man who was linked to the victim’s stolen pistol.
Professor Gates and Professor Finkelman joined Joyner and a number of attorneys in South Carolina earlier this week to hear the South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services render what is possibly the first posthumous pardon in a capital case in state history.
The Griffin brothers were executed by electric chair in South Carolina in 1915 for the 1913 murder of John Lewis, a Confederate Army veteran. The brothers, who were respected black farmers in Chester County, S.C., insisted upon their innocence, and many prominent whites signed public petitions that cast doubt on the Griffins’ guilt.
Professor Finkelman extensively researched the legal case against Thomas and Meeks Griffin to support Joyner’s efforts to obtain a pardon. In an interview with the daily newspaper The State, he said that “The most dramatic aspect of this case is the petitions. Almost everybody who signed them is believed to be white.”
He went on to explain that South Carolina at that time was plagued by lynching of black people and Jim Crow laws, and that it was astonishing that prominent whites would sign their names to a petition favoring blacks, especially when a wealthy Confederate soldier was the alleged victim.
Coverage of the pardon also appeared in USA Today, The Washington Times, the Charlotte Observer and a number of other top media outlets.
Professor Finkelman is the President William McKinley Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy at Albany Law School. A nationally known expert in constitutional law, American legal history, and race and the law, he is the author of more than 100 scholarly articles and more than 20 books.