Rally to underscore push for man's posthumous pardon

A black's conviction, execution for murder in 1919 were hasty, some say

May 14, 2000|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Advocates seeking a pardon for a black man they believe was wrongly convicted and executed in 1919 for killing a pregnant white woman will hold a memorial service for him on what would have been his 110th birthday.

They hope to know by the ceremony June 10 if Gov. Parris N. Glendening will pardon John Snowden, the last man hanged in Anne Arundel County.

Snowden was convicted of the Aug. 8, 1917, killing of Lottie Mae Brandon. His hanging Feb. 28, 1919, brought such turmoil to the state capital that the National Guard was called in to keep the peace. The ice wagon driver maintained his innocence, up until his execution. Shortly after his death, an anonymous writer to the Capital took credit for Brandon's murder; advocates for a pardon believe that confession should weigh heavily in their favor.

Carl O. Snowden (no relation), who is among those seeking the pardon, said the Annapolis black community at the time quietly buried John Snowden amid warnings from authorities and black ministers not to do anything that might upset the city.

In contrast, the ceremony and reception next month will have a higher profile, featuring Leroy Phillips Jr. as the keynote speaker. The Chattanooga, Tenn., lawyer won posthumous vindication for a black man lynched in 1906 by a white mob after a federal appeal stayed his execution on a hurried rape conviction. He is the co-author of "Contempt of Court," a book about the case.

The ceremony at Brewer's Hill Cemetery in Annapolis, where John Snowden was buried, is expected to draw between 300 and 500 people, many with ties to two longtime city churches, Asbury United Methodist and Mount Moriah African Methodist Episcopal, which are helping sponsor it.

"In a way, it's going to be a community burial for this man," said Snowden.

A plaque with an excerpt from John Snowden's last statement, in which he professed his innocence, will be placed behind his tilted, blank grave marker.

As plans for the service move ahead, organizers are seeking donations, which can be made to Asbury Church.

Advocates for his pardon, which include several area black organizations, believe there was a rush to judgment amid swirling rumors, explicit descriptions of the crime, changing witness stories and an assortment of theories. John Snowden reported being tortured by investigators but said he could not confess to a murder he did not commit. Eleven members of his jury asked that his life be spared.

"My father spoke very little about it," said Hazel Snowden, a niece of John Snowden who is among those seeking the pardon. "He kept an article about it on the mirror next to his bed. I think it made him very bitter."

Those seeking executive clemency said they realize it is hard to win, and this bid, the second for John Snowden, has been made partly for symbolic reasons. Though a pardon would not remove his guilt, it would serve as an apology to the black community and show an effort to set history straight, they said.

Officials said each request for a pardon is evaluated on whether convincing evidence exists to show the person was wronged.

Investigators for the Maryland Parole Commission have completed their work and are forwarding a report to the commission, said spokesman Leonard A. Sipes Jr. The commission will then give a recommendation to the governor, who has the final say, but when that decision will be made is unknown.

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