Imagine being convicted and sentenced to death three times for a murder you didn’t commit. That’s exactly what happened to a Black sharecropper in 1948. And it occurred right here in Carrollton.
University of West Georgia history alum and current Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Chris Joyner ’92 will return to campus next Wednesday to discuss his book, “The Three Death Sentences of Clarence Henderson,” which was named a Best Book of 2022 by The New Yorker.
Henderson was wrongfully accused in the 1948 murder of Carl “Buddy” Stevens Jr. and sentenced three separate times to die by electric chair. Each conviction was overturned by the Georgia Supreme Court. But Joyner’s true crime tome goes beyond the multitude of injustices to examine a community – and a nation – at a crossroads.
“The death of Buddy Stevens and the trial of Clarence Henderson is a pretty straightforward story, but it’s hard to really understand unless you put it in the context of the first decade after World War II,” Joyner explained. “All the themes that were driving America during that period – desire for economic expansion after the Depression and war, paranoia in politics, the Red Scare, and the beginning of the Cold War and civil rights movement. It impacted Carrollton in very concrete ways.”
One could say Joyner has been working on this project for almost 30 years. After earning two degrees in history, he returned to Carrollton to work for the Times-Georgian, the local newspaper, when his dad told him about a cold case from almost 50 years prior. His dad wasn’t especially close to Stevens, but they knew each other casually. So when Joyner got the reporter job, his dad advised him to look into it.
“One day, I pulled down the 1948 volume of The Georgian, as it was known, and started flipping through,” Joyner recalled. “I was drawn into the story. The documents drew me in the same way they would’ve in school, and I spent nights and weekends collecting information together about that story, very interested in how it would turn out.”
Fresh in his career, Joyner moved from assignment to assignment, and the project was put on hold until he returned to work for Georgia’s largest newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. By this time, he was 20 years into his career as a reporter, which gave him more writing experience and patience that was required to finally write the book.
“My training as a historian at UWG helped me build out that narrative and place it in the context of the 1940s – not just the South, but the U.S. as a whole – so it could be better understood,” Joyner said. “I think it’s a livelier story because of that.”
UWG was always on Joyner’s radar, as his parents met at then-West Georgia College in 1944. He was admittedly not a focused student and was struggling to decide what to do academically. And then he took his first history class.
“I was learning things that didn’t get taught in high school – like the civil rights and labor movements, the Great Depression and the period right after WWII,” Joyner recalled. “I had access to young professors who were energetic, real scholars who gave me personalized attention. I was a student in search of something, and UWG provided me with that canvas where I could find what I was looking for.”
At UWG, Joyner also learned many transferable skills that would benefit him in the future.
“History gave me a real challenge,” he began. “I couldn’t just coast. It required academic rigor, the same rigor also required in journalism. It’s a fact-based operation that relies on a close examination of sources. As an investigative journalist, I deal a lot with documents that require sifting through different materials and finding the stories inside.”
For “Three Death Sentences,” Joyner scoured newspaper clippings and court transcripts and spent a lot of time researching broader themes of the book, such as communism, the NAACP – which funded Henderson’s second and third defense – and the Jim Crow South.
Seven decades later, thanks to Joyner and his research, Henderson is getting another chance at justice: the AJC reported in September that Coweta Circuit District Attorney Herb Cranford is reopening the case. Henderson’s descendants, and the community, are awaiting a chance to file a motion with the Superior Court to dismiss the indictment against Henderson, who died in the early ’80s and was never fully exonerated.
After reading the book, Joyner said he hopes people walk away with a more nuanced understanding of the time period and the methodology of history that deals with injustices in the justice system.
“We have had a tilted criminal justice system that operates differently based on who you are, your wealth and your background,” he concluded. “Every one of these cases that gets reexamined with more modern eyes helps us understand more fully.”
Joyner’s reading of “The Three Death Sentences of Clarence Henderson” will be held on Wednesday, Feb. 8, at 6 p.m. in UWG’s Campus Center Ballroom. The School of the Arts Reading Series event is made possible through the generosity of the Warren and Ava Sewell Foundation of Bremen. The event is free and open to the public.