It's been 85 years since someone convicted of a crime in Jackson County has been put to death. That was slated to change Jan. 29, with the execution of Donnie Lance, who was convicted of a double-murder in Jackson County in 1999. (See news story and online updates.)
The last person from Jackson County to be executed was J.B. Reese, (aka J.B. Allen), a black man, who was convicted in Jackson County in 1935 of raping a white woman in Nicholson. He was electrocuted in Milledgeville in July 1935, following a brief trial the previous month.
For most of the state's early history, executions were local affairs and not done at the state level. Hanging was the method of execution in the state from its founding in 1735 until 1924, when electrocution was mandated by the state. At that time, an electric chair was built at the state prison in Milledgeville where all state executions were carried out.
In 1938, the state moved the electric chair from Milledgeville to the state prison in Reidsville.
Capitol punishment was stopped in the nation between 1964-1976.
In 1980, the state built a new electric chair at its state prison in Jackson. In 1983, executions in the state resumed.
In 2001, lethal injection became the method of execution in Georgia, replacing the electric chair.
1935 EXECUTION FROM JACKSON
The 1935 execution of Reese (Allen) was the only time someone from Jackson County has been executed by the state before now. Before 1925, executions were all done in local counties by the sheriff.
That 1935 incident was indicative of the tone of the times where there was great outrage surrounding accusations that a black man had raped a white woman.
Reese had reportedly escaped from the Morgan County "chain-gang" before making his way to Jackson County in June 1935. He allegedly attacked a farmer's wife at her home in Nicholson around 9 a.m. In the struggle, she hit him with an "iron shoe horn."
Reese was captured later that day, having a "swollen bump on his head," according to a newspaper story about the incident.
The community was outraged and around 50 white men went to the county jail looking for Reese, presumably to lynch him. But the sheriff had moved Reese to another jail and refused to tell the mob where he was.
About two weeks later, court was held to both indict and try Reese. The sheriff and superior court judge asked the state for security help and around 60 National Guardsmen, a group known as the "flying squadron," were sent to Jefferson to prevent violence during the trial. They were positioned both inside the courtroom and outside the courthouse. Machine guns were set up on the courthouse lawn. Only a few members of the public were allowed into the courtroom, but there was a large crowd of people in town, according to a newspaper report.
Court began at 9 a.m. when the judge formed a grand jury and told the group to act on indictments. About 45 minutes later, the grand jury foreman presented the judge with an indictment of Reese for rape.
The judge then empaneled a jury and appointed two lawyers to represent Reese. The trial only lasted a short time and the jury was out for only 25 minutes before returning a verdict of guilty. The judge sentenced Reese to be electrocuted the following month. The entire trial was over by noon.
Reese was put to death a month later, on July 19, 1935, in the electric chair in Milledgeville.
Although it's difficult to uncover every legal execution carried out in Jackson County before the state took over executions in 1925, these are a few that are documented:
1920 — Hollis Landers was hanged in Jefferson for having killed the Jackson County sheriff in a 1919 shooting.
1911 — Thomas Webster, a black man, was hanged in Jefferson for having raped a white woman in Jackson County.
1908 — Leon Harrison was hanged in Jefferson for the murder of a woman.
1897 — Grady Reynolds and Bud Brooks were hanged in Jefferson in a rare double-hanging for the murder of M.C. Hunt.
1873 — Steve Dunston and Crawford Norwood, both black men, were hanged in Jefferson in early 1873 for the 1872 rape of a white woman in Commerce. Dunston was hung in January 1873. The Norwood hanging in March 1873 was in public with 3,000 people attending. He was reportedly singing "I Am Going Home to Die No More" as he was hanged.
1873 — Kenny Burns, a black man, was reportedly hanged for the rape of a white woman at the same time Steve Dunston was hung. Details about that hanging are unclear.
1852 — A man with the last name of Scates, 82-years-old, was reportedly hanged in Jefferson for shooting his son.
1842 — The first record of a person being legally hanged in Jackson County, at least from newspaper reports, was of James Swetinon, convicted of murder. No other details were recorded.
Several other people have been convicted in Jackson County over the years and given the death sentence, but for various reasons, it wasn't carried out:
• On the same day as the Reese trial in 1935, the Jackson County court found a white man by the name of Bill Gossett guilty of murder. He was sentenced to death as well, but appealed his case. In 1936, the state Supreme Court upheld the verdict and he was re-sentenced to be electrocuted two weeks later. But before he was put to death, his sentence was commuted by the state and he served time in prison until 1941.
• One of the most famous incidents happened in 1956 when James Foster was convicted of killing Jefferson businessman Charles Drake. Foster was sentenced to death, but various appeals kept him alive until 1958 when it looked like the execution would be carried out. But at the last minute, another man confessed to the murder and Foster was set free.
• In 1967, Cliff Park was sentenced to death for being the mastermind behind the murder of solicitor general Floyd Hoard. But following numerous appeals, Park's death sentence was eventually changed to life in prison.
• Jerry Homer Page was convicted in 1983 of shooting three people, killing two of them, one of whom was his ex-wife. In 1982, Page had followed his ex-wife, two children and two adults in a car after she had won a custody hearing in court. Page blocked the car, got out and shot the three adults in front of his children. He was sentenced to death, but the sentence was later overturned and a 1988 jury gave him life in prison. He is still in the state prison system.
• In 1900, a young black man by the name of Gus Fellows was arrested for raping a white girl in a turnip patch near Commerce. Mob fever was high and Fellows was taken to a Clarke County jail for safekeeping. He stood trial 10 days later — the state military had to be sent to Jefferson to keep him from being lynched. He was convicted and sentenced to be hanged. While being held in an Atlanta jail until he could be hanged, Fellows was interviewed by an Atlanta newspaper reporter. In the interview, Fellows said it was his brother who committed the rape. The governor saw the article and intervened and Fellows wasn't hanged, but did face two more trials and two more convictions and death sentences. Finally, an appeal of the third conviction convinced local prosecutors to drop the charges and Fellows' life was spared.