Dead Since 1919, He Deserves Pardon


December 20, 1992|By ELISE ARMACOST

Once again, the season of forgiveness brings no pardon for John Snowden.

Not that it matters in any practical sense. Snowden is dead. A black man, he was the last person to die on the gallows in Anne Arundel County, hanged Feb. 28, 1919, for the murder of a white woman. His remains lie in an unmarked grave in the Brewer's Hill cemetery on West Street.

Perhaps he rests in peace.

But for some living Annapolis residents -- the older ones who recall the Snowden case and a younger generation that has read and heard about it -- his death still disturbs.

"No one has forgotten," says Annapolis Alderman Carl Snowden (no relation to John Snowden).

Was Snowden guilty beyond all reasonable doubt? Not from what trial transcripts, newspapers and the remembrances of now-dead witnesses tell us. The evidence against him was shaky and circumstantial, and John Snowden eloquently professed his innocence up until the noose was put around his neck.

Was he a victim of a too-hasty justice, of a system that condemned black men (especially those accused of crimes against white women) simply because they were black men? It seems so.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Carl Snowden wrote to Gov. William Donald Schaefer, asking for "executive clemency" -- a pardon -- for John Snowden. The matter was subsequently turned over to the state Parole Commission for review.

The county's most outspoken civil rights activist, Mr. Snowden felt -- still feels -- that this is not merely a matter of correcting what seems to have been a terrible injustice; indeed, a pardon would not constitute an abolition of guilt. But it would be a sort of apology from the state to the black community; a belated, formal acknowledgment that the system as it existed then was too quick to rush to judgment at the expense of justice.

"It would be one of the greatest communicative things the state could do," said George Phelps, another black activist who has taken an interest in John Snowden.

The governor usually grants requests for clemency around Christmas. This is the third holiday season since Mr. Snowden made his request, and a pardon seems unlikely again this year.

"No one's thought about [the Snowden case] since this time last year," a spokesman in the governor's office said. "But it's not a dead issue."

Carl Snowden suspects otherwise. "The case of John Snowden will become a footnote in history, as so many injustices are," he said. "I don't expect the governor to do anything at this point."

Why should he? There are far more pressing matters to consider these days. On the other hand, Governor Schaefer could grant a pardon in minutes with the stroke of a pen. Is there really any need to investigate the Snowden case any further? Is there any valid reason for not granting clemency?

There are no victims or families of victims to hurt. They are all dead, too. And while there is no conclusive proof that Snowden did not bludgeon Lottie Mae Brandon to death on Aug. 8, 1917, the case against him was full of holes and clearly did not meet the "reasonable doubt" standard our judicial system demands.

People thought so even then.

The evidence against Snowden, who drove an ice wagon, was simply this: Fragments of a black person's skin were found under the victim's nails, and he was seen in the area the day of the killing. The murder weapon was never found.

Snowden insisted until his death that he never knew the Brandons, and he never confessed despite, he claimed, beatings by police detectives.

According to newspaper accounts, outrage over the execution was so great that Baltimore police and two companies of the Maryland State Regiment were sent to Annapolis to prevent race riots. Gov. Emerson Harrington received a letter threatening him with assassination if the execution was not halted. The day before Snowden was hanged, a 60-year-old black man from Washington, D.C., offered to die in his place. Eleven of the 12 jurors who had convicted Snowden asked that his sentence be commuted to life.

In 1991, it took Governor Schaefer about a month to decide to grant clemency to eight abused women convicted of killing their husbands. Those cases, for obvious reasons, were far more important and controversial than a 75-year-old murder in which everyone who played a part is dead. So it is difficult to see why the governor does not simply pardon John Snowden.

There is nothing to be lost, and possibly something to be gained.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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