On Feb. 8, Chris Joyner visited UWG to read excerpts from and discuss his true crime investigative novel “The Three Death Sentences of Clarence Henderson.” Subtitled “a battle for racial justice at the dawn of the civil rights era,” Joyner’s book delves into a Carrollton murder and the prosecution of an innocent man.
A former UWG alumni himself, Joyner returned to Carrollton to work for the Times Georgian when he stumbled upon the cold case murder despite a ‘murderer’ being sentenced.
“My parents also met at West Georgia and they had been at West Georgia in the 1940s,” said Joyner. “My father knew Buddy Stevens a little bit. When I got a job at the Times Georgian—this would have been 96 or 97—my father said I ought to look at old copies of the Georgian from 1948, he said, ‘there was a really sensational crime and I don’t think they ever figured out who killed Buddy Stevens.’”
70 years ago on Halloween night, a couple was parked in a car at the edge of the development that would become Sunset Hills Country Club when they were threatened by a man wielding a gun. However, veteran Carl “Buddy” Stevens jumped the assailant and fought back. Buddy was shot and killed in the tussle, but fortunately the girl, Nan Turner, was able to escape. An hour later, police arrived and found the body, but by then, the attacker was long gone.
“It was a really shocking crime for Carrollton in 1948 for a lot of reasons,” said Joyner. “One of the reasons why was that Nan said she never saw the attacker. It was a moonless night, in fact, it was raining a little bit. So it was very dark, but she said his voice—and I’m quoting: his voice ‘sounded like a negro.’”
Out the gates, the murder was a national headline coupled with racial and political strife, the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement, the brewing Cold War along with the wake of World War Two and the Great Depression trailing behind.
“The police were unable to find a suspect that they could bring to trial,” said Joyner. “Despite pulling in practically every black man from 18 to 60 from Carrollton to Rome for questioning. And you can imagine questioning in the 1940s in the deep South on a case like this.”
Pressed by sensationalized media and other factors, police eventually brought in sharecropper Clarence Henderson, despite having no viable evidence against him.
“The only connection that they had for [convicting Henderson] was that a revolver that the police believed had been used in the murder of Buddy Stevens was found at a pawn shop in Atlanta,” said Joyner. “And they traced back through a series of transactions to Clarence Henderson for a period that was just long enough for him to have committed the crime.”
However, forensic issues were evident considering the bullet used to kill Buddy Stevens did not match the gunlinked to Henderson, unless filed down to fit in the gun’s chamber. Clarence Henderson also had an alibi with his wife, but she was never called to the stand during the trial.
“For an all white jury, if you were trying to find an alibi, it just didn’t seem like it was reasonable to bring a black man’s black wife on the stand, it’s just not gonna wash with an all white jury,” said Joyner. “So Henderson was tried and convicted in a one day trial, Jan. of 1950. All white jury, he had two white appointed attorneys and he was sentenced to death in the electric chair.”
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) got involved and hired two black attorneys and one white attorney for Henderson’s defense in a second trial. However, Henderson was convicted again in the Fall of 1950.
Beyond racial prejudice, the injustice of the situation can be attributed largely to the homicide investigators. In his book, Joyner conjectures more likely suspects, but it’s clear that law enforcement developed tunnel vision based on one unreliable description.
“There had been five prior attacks, at least,” said Joyner. “And no one had ever been shot in those attacks but there was always a gun present. We’re talking about someone who was a serial rapist, not a serial murderer. I think the gun was more or less a prop, a tool to scare off the boy in these sort of attacks.”
There were other odds stacked against Henderson when the Communist Party decided to support Henderson, which Joyner details more in the book.
“He never got freed in his lifetime of that murder charge,” said Joyner. “And his family was set back economically for generations.”
Henderson’s family was forced to leave Carrollton, subsequently going from poor to poorer on top of being notarized as the relatives of a murderer, and Joyner’s project has given the chance for closure. Currently, Joyner and one of Henderson’s grandsons, the spokesperson for the family, are working with the district attorney to have Clarence Henderson’s charges dropped posthumously.
“It means a lot to the family, I think,” said Joyner. “They grew up knowing about this case—not having the details—but knowing that their ancestor had been accused of killing a white man and that the whole family had been forced to leave Carrollton. Even though the family understanding is that hedidn’t do it. But I think having the case formally dismissed will provide some reconciliation for the family. At least that’s my hope.”