False confession led to erroneous murder conviction
In early April 1928, in Lowndes County, Alabama, Louise Butler came to suspect her paramour, George Yelder, of knowing, in the Biblical sense, her fourteen-year-old niece, Topsy Warren. After returning from a trip to Montgomery one day, Louise jealously confronted Topsy with her suspicion. Topsy thereupon vanished, and the county sheriff came to suspect foul play.
During questioning, three children — Topsy's nine-year-old sister and two younger cousins — purportedly claimed that Louise and George together had murdered Topsy. The story the sheriff attributed to the children was exceedingly gruesome: Louise supposedly struck Topsy with an ax, with which George dismembered the corpse. The remains allegedly were put into a sack, which Louise and George threw into the Alabama River.
Based on the children's accounts, Louise — but, inexplicably, not George — was arrested. After a few days in jail, Louise orally confessed. Her confession, which she soon recanted, matched what the children had said, according to the sheriff. On April 17, 1928, less than two weeks after Topsy disappeared, Louise and George were indicted by a grand jury. A week later, they were tried separately before Judge A. E. Gamble. Each trial lasted less than a day, Louise's on April 24, George's on April 25. Judge Gamble suppressed Louise's confession, based on her recantation, but the children repeated the hair-raising tale they had told the sheriff. The defendants testified at their respective trials, denying knowledge of Topsy's disappearance. The juries, which then by law were all white in Alabama, promptly returned verdicts of guilty. On April 25, Judge Gamble sentenced the African American defendants to life in prison.
Less than a week later, Topsy was discovered alive, well, and residing less than twenty miles away, her limbs intact. In June 1928, George and Louise were formally exonerated and released. The children then admitted that they had fabricated the story, at the behest of a man who had a grievance against George. It was never explained why they also had implicated Louise, or why she had confessed.
— Rob Warden