Professor Ruth Johnson Carter looks at the ways in which the murder trial of Emma Cunningham exemplified how race, wealth and geographical location can effect the fairness of death row trials
On the evening of January 1, 1979, the horribly battered body of William Beal ‘Bill’ Crawford was discovered by his long-time housekeeper, Mary Alice Tutt, who had become concerned when her boss did not answer his phone. Walking from her own house, situated nearby, she let herself in with the key she had been given. She located Mr. Crawford in the storeroom at the back of his house lying dead in drying pools of blood. His head had been beaten almost beyond recognition and his arms were bent at odd angles from his body, each broken in several places. Stifling her screams, Mrs. Tutt ran to the phone and called the Lincolnton Police.
Chief Lawrence Peeler arrived within a few minutes with several officers from his headquarters located only a few streets away at 148 Ward Street. Peeler was unaccustomed to dealing with homicides. He immediately called for assistance from the Thomson Seventh District Office of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Two GBI officers, Special Agents Mike Siegler and Jim Carver, took control of the crime scene.
“Blood was reported by lawmen to be ‘scattered all over the place.'”
The agents reported that Mr. Crawford was known to keep large sums of money in his house. The officials presumed that this cash was the likely “motivation for the murder.” Although an autopsy was immediately scheduled, the preliminary analysis indicated that Mr. Crawford “had put up a terrific struggle,” which led to his being killed by the killer striking him many times with a blunt object all over his head and body.
The front page of the January 2, 1979 Lincoln Journal newspaper described the scene at Mr. Crawford’s house: Blood was reported by lawmen to be “scattered all over the place.” The intruder “tracked blood over portions of the house.” Crawford’s body was presumably turned over after it fell to the floor since there were two pools of blood on the storeroom floor.
Crawford owned a profitable Frito-Lay snack franchise and lived in the house he inherited from his parents. The house, a one-story Victorian with gingerbread trimming and a wrap-around porch, was located on Humphrey Street, ironically, directly across the street from the Lincoln County Courthouse. In a town with a population of less than 2,000 the discovery of the murder of Bill Crawford in his own house was horrifying to the white population, most of whom knew him, at least casually, and many were his life-long friends.
For Emma Cunningham, January 1, 1979, was a Monday like any other. Had she known, she would not have cared that this was the day that diplomatic relations were re-established between the United States and China after 30 years of disruption and the Secretary General of the U.N. announced the International Year of the Child.
Emma had never been as much as 100 miles from where she was born in Hartwell, Georgia. Her concerns were local and specific. She needed to go to the laundromat.
Washing machines and dryers for home use were too expensive for people on a limited income, so most of the African American community had no choice except to use the only facility open to them. She and her husband James ‘Snowball’ Cunningham caught a ride with a friend to what they called the washhouse. Emma wanted to be sure that her two small children had clean clothes for a trip planned to New Jersey for a family funeral.
Since they had no way to get home after the clothes were washed and folded, Emma recounts, “I had to leave my baskets of clothes and walk with James over to my daddy’s house to get him to give us a ride home.” When asked after her arrest, “Which way did you walk?” Emma responded, “We came right by the Shell station, past the Milky Way Freeze Bar to my daddy’s house, off the 378/ McCormick Highway.”
“Emma has never deviated from her version of her behavior on the day of the murder”
“We don’t go way ’round by Mr. Crawford’s house,” Emma said. “My daddy live about a mile away from the laundromat off N. Washington Street.” Despite Emma’s statement, it was certainly possible to go to her father’s house by way of Mr. Crawford’s home and then walk the internal streets and pick up the highway from Goshen Street. Either way was about a mile.
“After daddy drives us home,” Emma recounts, “James leaves again. Somebody pick him up in a car. I never saw who it was. I stay up watching Wheel of Fortune and other game shows. Then I go to bed.” Emma remembers, “I get waked up around 1 a.m. New Years night with James shakin’ me like a dice cup and sayin’, ‘Get up! Get up! We goin’ to leave now.’ I say, ‘You crazy!’ I get up anyhow. Tha’s always how Snowball was. We always leavin’ anyway, which way and whenever. I say, ‘I thought we was leavin’ tomorrow.’ He say, ‘Wrap up the children real good, it cold out. I got Junior Williams outside. He gonna drive us to Augusta right now'”.
There is no proof of this scenario except if James had beaten Mr. Crawford to death his clothes would have been covered with blood when he left the scene. It is hard to believe that Emma or any sane person could have helped murder a man she knew and then walk in the rain with her blood soaked husband to her father’s house. It is equally unlikely that anyone covered in blood could have walked more than a mile along a highway without being noticed. It is just as unbelievable that after picking up her baskets of clothes, Emma would have returned home, to watch games shows on TV, and peacefully fall asleep without any unusual emotional reaction. Only a psychopathic personality would be able to function that way. Emma had never shown any violent characteristics. Psychological exams before and after Emma’s trial indicated no signs of mental illness barring understandable situational depression and anxiety.
Emma has never deviated from her version of her behavior on the day of the murder or that after their return home James almost immediately left again in a car she never saw. It was James who was agitated and frantic when he returned late that night wearing different clothes and it was he, who when arrested, confessed to the murder, without incriminating her until after his return to Georgia.
The lock step movements of the law followed a well-worn path. James’ culpability in the assault and death of William Crawford, given the attitude of the white community, seems to have been virtually decided even before his trial, which began on October 23, 1979.
The remaining issues were the penalty to be handed down for James and the degree of complicity, if any, of his wife, Emma, to be determined during her own trial. District Attorney, Kenneth Goolsby who prosecuted both cases said “I don’t think I have ever seen a more senseless killing than this one.” In his confession, James Cunningham said, “I did not intend to kill” Mr. Crawford.
Mr. Goolsby maintained, “It is not necessary that murder should be a part of the original design, but it is enough that it be one of the incidental and probable consequences…”
“The law says that you are guilty of murder if this wrench, (indicating the tool admitted into evidence as the murder weapon) caused the death of Bill Crawford.”
“Is there any doubt in your mind about the facts in this case? Murder is the killing of a human being, and certainly, Bill Crawford was a human being, a good one.
‘Snowball’ could have robbed him and left him alive, but he wouldn’t do that, there would have been a witness. The mostly white jury found James guilty and he was sentenced to death on October 25, 1979 after a trial, which lasted less than two days.
Built in 1915 in the Georgian style of architecture, the Lincoln County Courthouse sits on a large tree-filled lot on a pleasant street in Lincolnton, Georgia. Made of weathered red brick “that were made on site” from locally dug clay, the building is decorated with four white Doric columns. The grey roof is crowned by a clock tower with a small white painted cupola. Large black letters inscribed across the pediment label the building’s function. The structure is typical of many courthouses all across the rural south.
The two glass paned front doors lead into a cream painted hallway lined with pictures of current and past officials and a colored sketch of the building itself. The heart of the building, the courtroom is on the second floor, up a broad flight of polished hardwood steps.
The courtroom is immaculate. White painted wooden rails separate the observers from the tables and chairs arranged for the prosecution and defense lawyers. A similar railing divides the witness box and the space for the court reporter from the attorneys.
When court is in session, the judge sits behind an imposing desk several feet higher than the witness box in a large black leather swivel chair. The American and Georgia flags hang from stands on either side. The jury is seated to the left behind another white rail in black leather armchairs. Despite a costly restoration, except for the addition of computers, microphones, and the new Georgia flag which no longer features a Confederate ensign, the room has not changed very much in nearly 30 years.
“Till my trial, I ain’t never seen a wrench that big.”
On May 16, 2008, the sky is a cloud-filled blue and spring flowers are in bloom on the courthouse grounds, but the courtroom is shadowy and still. Emma sits in the witness box. She has not been back in this room since her trial for murder in 1979. She leans forward and rests her arms on the rail.
Emma sits quietly for a few minutes, and then the memories about her murder trial and her death sentence verdict bring slow tears to her eyes. Emma says, “The day of my trial the people sittin’ in the courtroom whisper among them while the lawyers and the judge talk to each other. The judge raps his little hammer and calls everyone to be quiet. They all hush up like kids in school when the principal come down the hall. When I was a chile’, I hate bein’ in school because I was teased for stutterin’.”
“It hurt my feelings when the teacher call out, ‘Emma Ruth make 67 on a test.’ I would put my head down on my desk because I usually know the answers, but I get so scared when they hand out the test that I can’t remember nothin’. After I leave school, I never done think a number could ever make me feel so bad. But when the assistant district attorney read out in a loud voice, ‘The State of Georgia versus Emma Ruth Cunningham, who by this indictment number 6757 is charged with the offense of burglary, armed robbery, and murder.’ That number made me want to hide. Six Seven Five Seven… Six Seven Five Seven…. It be like grades on a spellin’ test. You make 67. You make 57. Six seven Five Seven. Tha’s all I hear. The rest he read out don’t make no sense to me anyhow. The man go on readin’ and readin’ and readin’. I look up when he say … ‘killed William B. Crawford by beatin’ the said William B. Crawford with a certain wrench.’ which had been introduced earlier as the murder weapon in James’ trial.”
Emma says emphatically. “‘Till my trial, I ain’t never seen a wrench that big. They say I take it in my pocketbook, and when Mr. Crawford won’t give us no money, James and I kill him. Tha’s another lie. That wrench more than a foot long. How it gonna fit in no regular pocketbook? Them clothes they put into evidence in my trial were the things I give James for Christmas. Even the D.A., Mr. Goolsby, admit he don’t have no evidence but me walking in the direction of Mr. Bill’s house. They never can put me in that house when Mr. Bill murdered. Tha’s ’cause I weren’t there. I did not kill or help to kill that old man,” Emma says scornfully. “They say I confess to killing Mr. Crawford, but I only sign what they give me to protect my children and my parents.”
Decision for Bench Trial
Emma’s court appointed lawyers, Roger Dunaway and Robert Cofer, made the decision for her to have a Bench Trial because the death penalty had been introduced as a part of James’ trial. Her lawyers had reason to believe that death would be a part of a guilty verdict in Emma’s case as well. A Bench Trial is unusual for a murder trial because the judge makes all the decisions about the law and also acts as a one-man jury in evaluating the facts. The judge has control over the process of the trial as he normally would, but he is not supposed to make up his mind until he hears all of the evidence. It is one thing to believe the judge will be fair, and something else to have that always be true
The District Attorney Kenneth Goolsby was concerned about the possible legal issues, which might arise with a murder trial without a jury. Because of the DA’s apprehensions, Judge Stevens looked sternly at Emma and demanded, “Do you understand that without a jury this judge, myself, will be the only living person who will say whether you are guilty or not guilty?” Emma, who had been asked to stand, looked down at the floor and said in a barely audible voice, “Yes sir, I understands.” Stevens asked, “Do you understand all of your rights under both the Constitution of the United States and the laws of the United States and of the State of Georgia?”
Since many college students could not answer this question with certainty, Emma’s affirmative answer once again was based on her instructions rather than any real comprehension of what had been said to her. Then the signed and witnessed document of Emma’s request for a non-jury trial was entered into evidence as proof that she was not influenced in her decision.
“Mr. Dunaway and Mr. Cofer told me to say ‘yes’ to all of those questions,” Emma relates. “I don’t have no clue about what a Bench Trial was or what I say yes about or why the lawyers make that decision. Mr. Dunaway and Mr. Cofer have me write a letter that I sign. Them lawyers and my mama and daddy witnessed it on October 24, 1979, askin’ for this kind of trial, They filed that letter at 12:15 p.m. on October 25, right before they start my trial.”
When asked about Emma’s Bench Trial, the Honorable Roger Dunaway, now the Chief Judge of the Tombs Circuit, leans back in his swivel chair at his office in the McDuffie County Courthouse and reminisces about the attitude in Lincolnton toward Emma when he and the late Robert Cofer were appointed as her lawyers. Judge Dunaway, a distinguished jurist, who before his appointment to the bench, served as the county attorney, is a tall, slim man who, without any notion of a cliché, epitomizes the phrase “southern gentleman.”
“We decided on the Bench Trial,” the judge says, “because there was a lot of anger in the Lincolnton community. Mr. William Crawford was real prominent. He lived right across the street from the courthouse. Everybody was familiar with him.”
“They believed she had planned the whole thing, and that she was more responsible.”
“They were going for the death penalty [in James’ case], and most of the community felt Emma was the one behind the murder. Everybody felt that she was the smarter of the two. They believed she had planned the whole thing, and that she was more responsible. Snowball’s case was tried first. We were struck by the fact that when his attorneys asked the jury if any of them had heard anything about the case, not the first hand went up. This murder case was obviously the most talked about thing that had happened in years, and people behaved as if they had never heard of the crime.”
“It was almost impossible to get a change of venue. Much harder than it is today,” Judge Dunaway continues. “Then, of course, Snowball was convicted. We felt like our best chance to avoid the death penalty was a Bench Trial. The issue, in this case, was whether or not a person who neither planned nor participated in a murder could be given the death penalty.”
“We decided our best chance was for the judge to look at the case unemotionally. Maybe we would come out with a better chance than before a jury. We had just seen what happened to Snowball and we knew everybody blamed her more than they did him.”
Judge Robert L. Stevens, a WWII Army veteran who had served in the Pacific theater in Burma, India, and China, was often an advocate for peaceful solutions when arbitration was possible. His devotion to legal orthodoxy and the exact wording of the law was a part of his legacy of succeeding his father into the practice of law. He followed some internal and often, unpredictable logic in his decisions and would “show compassion in some cases, but [would] hammer you in other cases.” To the consternation of her attorneys, Judge Stevens after a brief period of reflection, returned to the courtroom and read his personally handwritten note into the record sentencing Emma to the death penalty.
Judge Stevens read the formal statement into the record: “It Is Considered, Ordered and Adjudged By The Court, that you Emma Ruth Cunningham, be taken from the bar of this Court, where you now stand to such place of confinement as the law provides, where you shall be safely kept and confined until you shall be removed and in the manner provided by law to such an institution where you shall be submitted to the penalty of death by electrocution, as provided by law, between the hours of ten o’clock in the forenoon and two o’clock in the afternoon on the 14th day of December, 1979, and may the Lord have mercy on your soul. This case is closed,” the judge said and got up and disappeared through a door into his chambers.
A deputy handcuffed Emma for the first time since her arrest and escorted her back to the jail. The bright sky had faded to a washed out grey and the air was cold on her bare arms. She stumbled and the deputy caught her. She could feel tears on her face, but they seemed to belong to someone else. She was locked into her cell, and the jailer turned out the lights. Emma sat on her cot. There was a faint light in the outer office.
She stared at the glow as if somewhere there would be an answer. She was not quite 28 years old and had spent her entire life just trying to survive. Even the GBI agents had said that she was very smart. She had worked as hard as she could. She took good care of her two children and loved them better than her own life. Her existence did not seem to matter at all. She had been given a death sentence for a murder she knew that she had not committed. A judge had said she was guilty of Mr. Crawford’s homicide and had pronounced that she was to die on the 14th day of December 1979. She felt like a drop of water suspended from the rim of a dripping faucet. The fall was inevitable and had no outcome but chaos and destruction.
“Livin’ on death row is pure hell!”
Sitting in her immaculate living room 30 years later, Emma says, “Livin’ on death row is pure hell!” Her voice shaking as she remembers, she adds, “No one else can know your circumstances. You don’t really know when they are comin’ to get you.
You never know when they will. It’s so hard on a person. It’s hard not to think about your death and bein’ killed for no reason. Every time I heard the keys rattlin’ in the locks, I would think that they were comin’ to tell me, ‘Emma Cunningham get yourself up. They are ready for you. Your appeal was turn down.'” Emma sighs, “No one who ain’t been there can imagine the agony of hopelessness and helplessness and loneliness.” Emma adds, “In prison you are still treated the same way as you are on the outside because you black. Now we’re in a new century, but 1979 for me is still a reminder of the holocaust of what many blacks still face today–injustice, discrimination, and violent death.”
“I was stunned at Judge Steven’s verdict,” Judge Dunaway says. “I never believed what James Cunningham said about Emma,” he adds emphatically. “I don’t think he planned to murder Bill Crawford, either. When Crawford fought back, Snowball just panicked because he just kept beating and kept beating. The murder was horrible, bloody, and gruesome. I think the Lord was looking after Emma Ruth, when we finally got her death penalty sentence reversed on appeal. Her trial had a lot of bearing on how I looked at criminal cases. I think Emma’s case really gave me a lot of sensitivity.”
Emma, reflects on her life, “Ain’t many people in this world ever had the experiences I had. Not many put on death row, and not many have the gate swing open. I done for real been in the ‘valley of the shadow.’ Don’t make me no better nor no worse than you. But what happen to me do make me see. I see with my eyes the crack in the sidewalk and the red flower on the bush. I see the rust on the gate and the tear in the eye. When you faced with death–when you know you ain’t done the killin’ and God save you from your doom, then everything become important.” Emma pauses, “…and then at the same time not important at all. You sees everything, because you might not never get to see with your eyes again–not by God ‘s choice but of the law. So I go out and speak against what I know is wrong. There ain’t no way to argue with the fact like I say over and over that there more black people executed than white.”
“Who gets the death penalty is largely determined, not [solely] by the severity of the crime, but by: the race, sex and economic class of the criminal and victim,” says Judge Dunaway.
Who ends up on death row is subject to vagaries in the legal process. The death penalty is like a lottery, in which fairness always loses.
In the late twentieth century, statistics indicate that the overwhelming majority of those on death row who were African American were, as Emma Ruth Cunningham was, convicted for killing white victims. This is despite the fact that African Americans make up about half of all homicide victims. When African Americans commit crimes against white people, race becomes a more relevant issue, creating less objective sentencing decisions. Judges can be influenced by racial characteristics that “are influential in courtroom assessments of blameworthiness, dangerousness, and practical constraints.”
“We simply cannot say we live in a country that offers equal justice to all Americans when racial disparities plague the system by which our society imposes the ultimate punishment.”
Poor people are also far more likely to be given the death penalty than those who can afford the high costs of private investigators, psychiatrists, and expert criminal lawyers. Geography also plays a role. Since 1976, with the reinstatement of the death penalty after the Supreme Court Decision in the case of Gregg v. Georgia, 82% of all executions have taken place in the South.
As Senator Russ Feingold said in a speech on civil rights as a priority, “We simply cannot say we live in a country that offers equal justice to all Americans when racial disparities plague the system by which our society imposes the ultimate punishment.”
Emma’s trial and death penalty conviction is an almost perfect example of each of these issues. The examination of her trial transcript clearly illustrates racial prejudice, jailhouse “snitch” testimony, introduction of misinterpretation of evidence, and community pressure for her conviction. Within the framework of her story, perhaps understanding may be gained about the plight of individuals who through cultural and social circumstances are deprived of the benefits of education and the full weight of equality under the law. Yet it is not Emma’s “troubles” that make her memorable, it is her remarkable and continued evolution that makes her an embodiment of Maya Angelou’s wonderful lines: “You have tried to destroy me and though I perish daily, I shall not be moved.”
Image | Matt Freedman