A Brief List of People Who Have Not Been Found Guilty of Murder in America

A Brief List of People Who Have Not Been Found Guilty of Murder in America November 20, 2021

Today, no doubt, your ears are still ringing with a certain “not guilty” verdict.

You surely have an opinion on this “not guilty” verdict. I have lots of them. But instead of addressing this particular case and this particular verdict, I just want to talk about some other notable people who have been found “not guilty,” or not found guilty because they were never brought to trial in the first place, for murder at all in the United States of America.

This is not in any way an exhaustive list, it’s just several historic cases I remember. You can surely name some more on your own. It seems to happen quite a lot.

The people who killed Elijah Parish-Lovejoy were not found guilty of his murder. Elijah Parish-Lovejoy was a white ally, a newspaper editor and a Presbyterian minister who spoke out for the abolition of slavery. In 1837 in Alton, Illinois, a mob of pro-slavery partisans besieged the warehouse where his printing press was hidden. They shot Lovejoy dead when he opened the warehouse door. Those rioters who were indicted were quickly found not guilty by a jury whose foreman had himself been a member of the mob.

The people who killed Amos Miller were not found guilty of his murder. Miller was accused of raping a white woman but maintained his innocence. In 1888 in Nashville, Tennessee, a mob who were not disguised in any way invaded the courthouse and hanged Miller from the balcony. Not a single member of the mob was ever identified or arrested.

The people who killed John Coe were not found guilty of his murder. John, whose legal name was George Smith, was a father of two and a railroad porter. In 1891 in Omaha, Nebraska, Coe was accused of assaulting a white child despite having an alibi with several witnesses. A local newspaper falsely reported that the child was dead when in fact she was alive. A mob of white supremacists invaded the jail, dragged Coe out, beat him and eventually hanged him from a streetcar cable. Later, they sold pieces of the rope as souvenirs. The charges against his murderers were dropped when the coroner declared that Coe had died of “fright” instead of his three broken vertebrae and sixteen wounds.

The people who killed Ephraim Grizzard were not found guilty of his murder.  In 1892 in Nashville, Tennessee, Ephraim was accused of assaulting two white girls, but before any evidence for or against this could be presented, he was dragged out of prison by a mob, stripped naked, tortured, and hanged from a bridge. This was all done publicly in the middle of the afternoon, but no one was ever brought to trial.

The people who killed Julia and Frazier Baker were not found guilty of their murder. Frazier Baker was a schoolteacher and postmaster, and a father of six. Julia was his two-year-old daughter. In 1897 in Lake City, South Carolina, their house was burned to the ground by a mob of white supremacists who shot Frazier and Julia to death when they attempted to flee the building. Frazier’s wife and other children were badly injured but survived. Thirteen members of the lynch mob were put on trial for the Bakers’ murder, but were found not guilty by an all white jury.

The people who killed Laura and L. D. Nelson were not found guilty of  their murder. Laura was a wife and mother whose husband had stolen a cow because his family was starving. L. D. was her teenage son. They were arrested for the theft, and were trying to peacefully hand over their guns to the sheriff when he grabbed the gun and was accidentally shot to death. In 1911 in Orkfuskee County, Oklahoma, a mob invaded the jail, dragged Laura and L. D. out. Laura was raped and her son partially undressed, and they were hanged from a bridge in broad daylight. Multiple photographs were taken of the event and sold as postcards. In some of these photographs, the murderers themselves posed for the camera. Despite this abundance of evidence, no one was ever brought to trial.

The people who killed Mary Turner and her unborn baby were not found guilty of her murder. Mary was the pregnant wife of Hayes Turner, who had recently been lynched on a false accusation of conspiring to kill a white plantation owner. Mary threatened to swear out warrants for her husband’s killers. In retaliation, in 1918 in Lowndes County, Georgia, a mob hanged her upside down, cut the live baby from her womb, stomped it to death, and set her on fire. They buried her in a shallow grave marked with a whiskey bottle and one cigar. No one was ever charged for their killings.

The people who killed Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith were not found guilty of their murder. Shipp and Smith were charged with the murder of a white man and rape of a white woman who later declared she hadn’t been raped, but they did not live long enough to be tried. In 1930 in Marion, Indiana, they were dragged out of jail and hanged from a tree by a mob. A famous photo with clear images of many members of the mob’s faces was taken; the photographer sold thousands of copies. Four members of the mob were eventually put on trial, but they were found not guilty.

The people who killed Willie Earle were not found guilty of his murder. Earle was charged with the murder of a cab driver based on circumstantial evidence. In 1947 in Greenville, South Carolina, a mob of cab drivers kidnapped Earle from the jail, and beat and stabbed him to death. 28 members of the mob were put on trial but were found not guilty by an all white jury.

The people who killed Emmett Till were not found guilty of his murder. Emmett was a 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was accused of flirting with a white woman named Carolyn Bryant who later admitted she made the whole story up. In 1955 in Money, Mississippi, the woman’s husband and his half-brother, J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, tortured the boy to death and threw his body in the river. Eyewitnesses who saw the murder pointed Milam and Brant out at their trial. The jury acquitted them after just under an hour, joking that it would have taken less time if they hadn’t “stopped to drink a pop.”

The people who killed William Lewis Moore were never found guilty of his murder. William was a white ally and a mail carrier. He frequently took part in civil rights protests, and once volunteered to be arrested along with a group of Black teenagers who were trying to see a movie in a whites-only theatre. In 1963 near Collbran, Alabama, he was shot to death. The gun that shot him was traced to Floyd Simpson, a white store owner who had questioned him the day before, but neither Simpson nor anyone else was brought to trial for his murder.

The people who killed Reverend James Joseph Reeb were not found guilty of his murder. Reeb was a white ally and a Unitarian minister who took part in civil rights protests. In 1965 in Birmingham, Alabama, he was attacked and severely beaten by white men with clubs. The hospital for Black people in Selma did not have the resources to treat his injuries, and the white hospital refused to take him. He died shortly afterwards. His murderers were tried, but three were found not guilty and one fled to Mississippi where he was not retuned for trial.

Reverend Bruce Klunder‘s death was ruled an accident.

Trayvon Martin‘s killer was found not guilty.

No one was ever convicted for shooting Tamir Rice.

The people who shot Breonna Taylor were not held responsible for anything except shooting the wall.

These are just some things I happened to think about today.



Image: a detail from the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain.

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
Steel Magnificat operates almost entirely on tips. To tip the author, visit our donate page.

Browse Our Archives