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Georgia to pardon black woman it put to death in 1945

Panel found case 'a grievous error'

ALBANY, Ga. -- The only woman ever executed in Georgia's electric chair is being granted a posthumous pardon, 60 years after the black maid was put to death for killing a white man she claimed held her in slavery and threatened her life.

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has decided to pardon Lena Baker and plans to present a proclamation to her descendants at its Aug. 30 meeting in Atlanta, Scheree Lipscomb, a spokeswoman for the board, said yesterday.

The board did not find Baker innocent of the crime, Lipscomb said. Members instead found the decision to deny her clemency in 1945 ''was a grievous error, as this case called out for mercy," Lipscomb said.

Baker was sentenced to die following a one-day trial before an all-white, all-male jury in Georgia.

''I believe she's somewhere around God's throne and can look down and smile," said Baker's grandnephew, Roosevelt Curry, who has led the family's effort to clear her name.

John Cole Vodicka, director of the Prison & Jail Project, a prison-advocacy group based in Georgia that assisted Baker's descendants with the pardon request, said he was elated with the decision.

''Although in some ways it's 60 years too late, it's gratifying to see that this blatant instance of injustice has finally been recognized for what it was -- a legal lynching," Vodicka said.

During her trial, Baker testified that E. B. Knight, a man she had been hired to care for, held her against her will in a grist mill and threatened to shoot her if she tried to leave. She said she grabbed Knight's gun and shot him when he raised a metal bar to strike her.

After Baker's execution in 1945, her body was buried in an unmarked grave behind a church where she had been a choir member. In the late 1990s, the congregation marked the grave with a concrete slab.

Baker's supporters have been gathering at her grave every year since 2001 to mark the date of her execution, and Curry, along with a few dozen surviving family members, hosted a Mother's Day ceremony at the graveside in 2003, the same year he requested the pardon. State records indicate that 20 women have been executed in Georgia, 19 by hanging and Baker by electrocution.

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