(TriceEdneyWire.com) – They were sentenced to die in 1973 for a rape they didn’t commit, but found freedom after the Southern Poverty Law Center and its co-founder, Morris Dees, took on the racially charged North Carolina case.
Jesse Walston sounds like many men in their 60s when he speaks.
He talks about life in semi-retirement. He talks about spending time with family and friends. When he speaks about his grandchildren, his voice swells with pride. And when he reflects on life, he speaks with the authority that comes only from life experience.
But what sets him apart from many men his age is what he has experienced.
Four decades ago, Walston and two other men were sentenced to die in North Carolina’s gas chamber. The Black men were wrongly convicted of raping a White woman in Tarboro, N. C. Walston and the others– who became known as the “Tarboro Three” – might have remained in prison awaiting their execution had it not been for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which appealed the case and freed them in 1975.
“There’s no point in feeling bitter about it,” said Walston, 65. “You just have to be happy that things turned out the way they did. I don’t hold no grudges or no ill feelings for anybody. I’m just glad that the truth came out.”
But it took time for the truth to come out.
Walston and his two friends – Vernon Brown and Bobby Hines – spent two years in prison before they were freed. Convicted of rape in 1973, they remained steadfast in declaring that they had not raped the woman they had given a ride to a popular late-night hangout after spotting her walking alone at night. They even rejected a plea deal that would have spared them the death penalty.
After the story of the Tarboro Three reached SPLC founder Morris Dees, he took the case.
“When I met these men, they were locked up only 30 feet from the gas chamber,” Dees said. “I am so proud that the Southern Poverty Law Center was able to free them and give them a second chance at life. I only wish that the racial injustice at the heart of this case was no longer an issue today. Unfortunately, our nation is still grappling with many of the same issues that almost cost the Tarboro Three their lives.”
Dees found evidence that wasn’t introduced at the trial, winning a new trial. Rather than retry the men, prosecutors agreed to release them from prison if they pleaded “no contest” to reduced charges. They accepted the offer, even though they had earlier refused to plead guilty to rape charges in exchange for a lighter sentence, saying they could not admit to a crime they didn’t commit.
“When Morris stepped in we felt a little more relaxed and we knew it was just a matter of time that the truth was going to come out because he let us know that he was going to get to the bottom of it,” said Walston, who still remains in contact with Dees today.
Life after the Tarboro Three
Once the case ended and the headlines faded, the Tarboro Three had to resume their lives. Walston was reunited with his wife, daughter and 2-year-old son, who was born just before he went to prison. He was even rehired to the job he held before the ordeal.
Today, he’s a part-time truck driver and lives in Camp Springs, Maryland, with his wife. A proud father of six adult children and grandfather of 10, Walston exudes a content and grateful demeanor. He speaks about summer vacations in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Virginia Beach, Va., as well as visits with family – time that he clearly savors.
“The whole life after that [case] has been happy,” he said.
On Labor Day, Walston visited Brown in Tarboro. The two men’s friendship, which began in high school, has endured over time.
“I guess we’ll be friends for life,” Walston said. The third member of the group, Hines, died in a work-related accident years after the case.
As for Brown, he found work shortly after being released from prison. He took a job at a factory that created pressboard for use in furniture and worked there for 31 years. At age 64, this father of three adult children and grandfather of seven now works part-time at a rental car company.
“I’m so grateful for Mr. Morris Dees,” he said. “I’m indebted to him for the rest of my life. I’m just glad everything is behind me. I’m just looking forward.”
But Brown also admits life is never the same after such an experience.
“I’m never going to forget it,” he said. “But I’m doing OK.”
Brown still lives in Tarboro, which keeps him near family and friends. He describes himself as a “homebody” – echoing a comment his mother made in a story published by the SPLC four decades ago where she questioned how her son, who “stuck by the house,” could have ended up in prison.
There are still people who recognize Brown as a member of the Tarboro Three today, something that’s to be expected in a small town of about 11,000 residents. The younger generation, however, seems unaware, he said. Brown just pushes on with life, possibly finding strength and resolve from the memory of the day he was released.
“It looked like a whole new world,” he said of that day. “The air was sweet – everything!”
Despite the decades that have passed, both men recognize that the issues at the center of their case are still relevant today, issues such as the mass incarceration, racial injustice and the death penalty. Walston believes there have been some improvements to the justice system since the case but that there is still more work ahead. Brown is more apt to point out that the justice system doesn’t always work equally for everyone.
“I hate that it happens to people … but I know it can happen,” he said of people wrongfully convicted.
Walston offered one piece of advice for someone in a similar situation as the Tarboro Three.
“Never plead guilty to something you’re not,” he said. “Never.”