Donald V. Watkins
Sentenced to 218 Years in Prison: The Unbelievable Case of Elizabeth “Lizzy” Williams
Updated: Sep 5, 2022
By: Donald V. Watkins
©Copyrighted and Originally Published (via Facebook) on April 26, 2014; Updated and Republished on February 19, 2018
In 1942, Ms. Elizabeth “Lizzy” Williams, a 23 year-old black woman from Birmingham, Alabama, was convicted as an accomplice to robbery. Her crime was lying to police to protect a man accused of robbery for stealing chickens to feed his family. Upon her conviction, Ms. Williams was sentenced to 218 years in Alabama’s prison system.
Ms. Williams provided a false alibi for Turner Washington, who was her live-in boyfriend at the time. Washington was nearly twice Ms. Williams’ age. Washington told Ms. Williams that he had stolen some chickens. He convinced Ms. Williams that he would be electrocuted if he was found guilty.
When Birmingham police confronted Ms. Williams about Turner Washington, she lied for him. She told police that Washington was at home with her when the crime occurred. "I did try to save his life,”said Ms. Williams. “I thought telling a lie to save a man’s life for taking some chickens was the right thing to do. I believed [Turner Washington] when he said he had stolen some chickens.”
Unbeknownst to Ms. Williams, Washington had also stolen a gold watch, an overcoat, a few trinkets, and about $65 dollars in cash.
Ms. Williams, who quit school in the third grade, did not realize the seriousness of this crime in 1942. At this time in Alabama’s history, poultry and items of personal property were considered much more valuable than the life of a black person.
Ms. Williams was arrested, charged with three counts of robbery, and tried as an accomplice to this crime by three all-white Alabama juries. Each jury convicted Ms. Williams on one felony count of robbery. She did not have defense counsel in any of her three trials.
Ms. Williams received consecutive sentences of 99, 99, and 20 years, for a total of 218 years in prison. She served six years at the Tutwiler Prison for women. She was subsequently transferred to the Mount Vernon Hospital for the mentally ill inmates. She escaped three times and fled to Michigan after her third escape in 1951.
Turner Washington received a similar harsh prison sentence. He died in Kilby Prison in 1948.
I became Ms. Williams' lawyer in 1978. This was two year after I had secured a full and unconditional pardon for Clarence Norris, the last known surviving Scottsboro Boy. I thought Ms. Williams’ case would be an easy one for a pardon.
By 1978, Ms. Williams was 60-years old. She had led an exemplary life for the past 27 years, and was a well-respected minister in Michigan. She was never mentally ill, as Alabama prison officials claimed in the 1940s. Ms. Williams had become a distinguished and useful citizen in Michigan.
When Alabama officials learned of Ms. Williams' whereabouts in March 1978, they sought to have her extradited so that she could serve the remaining 209 years of her prison sentence. After an outpouring of community outrage, Michigan Governor William Milliken refused to extradite Ms. Williams stating: “The ends of justice would not be served” by sending her back to Alabama.
I convinced Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley that he should take up Ms. Williams' pardon request to correct a grave injustice. Baxley agreed with me that Ms. Williams deserved a full and unconditional pardon, and that her quest for a pardon was based upon her desire to gain inner satisfaction. It was also aimed at ensuring that the vagaries of fate would never force Ms. Williams to return to Alabama.
In one of his last acts as Attorney General, Bill Baxley asked the Alabama Pardons and Parole Board in January 1979 to grant Ms. Williams a full and unconditional pardon. He outlined the case for a pardon in a well-written letter. The Board had refused Ms. Williams’ earlier request for a pardon, but Baxley was undeterred. Baxley wrote that only after a pardon has been issued would Ms. Williams be free of the “stigma of being a fugitive of justice."
The Board never granted Ms. Williams a pardon. Her name was never cleared. She died a free woman, but lived most of her life as a fugitive from justice, Alabama style.
AP PHOTO: Elizabeth "Lizzy" Williams, Circa 1978