Lena Baker

Lena Baker

Lena Baker (June 8, 1901 – March 5, 1945) was an African American maid who was executed for murder by the State of Georgia in 1945 for killing her employer, Ernest Knight, 67,[1] in 1944. At her trial she claimed that he had imprisoned and threatened to shoot her should she attempt to leave, whereupon she took his gun and shot him. Baker was the only woman to be executed by electrocution in Georgia.[2] She was granted a full and unconditional pardon by the State of Georgia in 2005, 60 years after her execution.

Early life

Baker was born and raised in Cuthbert, Georgia to a family of poor black sharecroppers. Her mother, Queenie, worked for a farmer named J.A. Cox, chopping cotton.[3]

At the age of 20, Baker and a friend found they could make money by "entertaining gentlemen".[3] This came to attention of the Randolph County sheriff as their clientèle were white and interracial relationships were illegal in Georgia.[3] The two were arrested and spent several months in a workhouse. On release she was ostracized by the black community, leading her to become an alcoholic.[3] By the time she was in her early forties, Baker had three children.[3]
[edit] Ernest Knight

In 1941, Knight hired Baker to care for him after he broke his leg.[4] In the town of Cuthbert, Georgia, Knight was viewed as a brutal and abusive man, a failed farmer who ran a gristmill and who always had a pistol strapped to his chest.[4] A relationship developed between the two. Knight was believed to provide Baker with alcohol in return for sex, and the whole town knew of the relationship.[4] Knight was persuaded by his oldest son, A.C. Knight, to move to Tallahassee, Florida in an effort to break up the pair, but Baker soon followed.[4] A.C. Knight then gave Baker an ultimatum to leave, which she did, but Knight followed her back to Cuthbert.[4]

On the night of April 30, 1944, Lena Baker went to the house of J.A. Cox, who was now the town coroner, and told him that she had shot Knight.[5][6] Cox told Baker to go to the sheriff, while he would go to the gristmill where Baker said Knight's body was.[6] Baker did not go to the sheriff, but instead went home.[6] She was picked up by the sheriff later that night, but was cooperative.[7] He gave her two days to sleep off the effects of the alcohol in her system before questioning her.[7]

Baker then told her version of events. Knight had come to her house drunk and asked her to come to the mill. She did not want to go and tried stalling him by asking for money to go buy some whiskey.[7] He gave her some money and she went to the "colored bar" on Dawson Street to buy alcohol, but found it closed.[7] She waited there for a while hoping that Knight would leave her house, but when she returned, he was still there.[7] She was forced to accompany him to the mill, but escaped and hid in the underbrush.[7] She bought some whiskey and went to sleep in the woods near the convict camp.[7] On waking the next morning she decided to go to the mill, sure this was the last place that Knight would go; this was exactly where Knight was, however.[7] He held her prisoner for several hours, even through several hours of his absence, when he attended a "singing" with his son.[7] He returned and told Baker he would kill her if she tried to "quit" him.[7] Baker was the only living witness to the details of what happened, but in the ensuing struggle, Knight's pistol went off, hitting him in the head and instantly killing him.[7] Baker claimed she acted in self-defense.[2]
[edit] Trial and execution

Lena Baker was charged with capital murder and stood trial on August 14, 1944, presided over by Judge William "Two Gun" Worrill, who kept a pair of pistols on his judicial bench in plain view.[8] The all-white male jury convicted her by the end of the afternoon.[8] Her court-appointed counsel, W.L. Ferguson, filed an appeal but then dropped Baker as a client.[8] Governor Ellis Arnall granted Lena a 60-day reprieve so that the Board of Pardons and Parole could review the case, but clemency was denied in January 1945.[5] Baker was transferred to Reidsville State Prison on February 23, 1945.[5]

On entering the execution chamber, Baker calmly sat in the electric chair, called Old Sparky, and said "What I done, I did in self-defense. I have nothing against anyone. I'm ready to meet my God."[9][8] She was buried at Mount Vernon Baptist Church.[9]

In 2001, members of Baker's family petitioned to have a pardon granted by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, seeing the original verdict as racist.[1] This was granted in 2005, with the Parole Board, granting her a full and unconditional pardon,[10] suggesting a verdict of manslaughter, which would have carried a 15 year sentence,[1] would have been more appropriate.[11]
[edit] Media coverage

A novel, The Lena Baker Story, authored by Lela Bond Phillips, chronicled her life. This book was the basis for a screenplay by actor/director Ralph Wilcox filmed in 2007 in Southwest Georgia. The film, also entitled The Lena Baker Story stars Tichina Arnold in the title role, Peter Coyote, Beverly Todd and Michael Rooker and is due for DVD release in Spring 2009.

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