John Wesley Benton

A False Plea To Avoid A Death Sentence

On January 31, 1942, in Charlotte, North Carolina, Blanche N. Jennings, a married white woman, accused John Wesley Benton, a 33-year-old black man, of raping her. Benton was arrested and a Mecklenburg County grand jury promptly returned a true bill charging that "with force of arms [Benton] did unlawfully, willfully, and feloniously rape, ravish, and carnally know [Jennings] forcibly and against her will" — a capital crime.

The following March 16, under an agreement precluding a death sentence, Benton pled nolo contendere to a reduced charge of assault with intent to commit rape. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison to be served "at hard labor under the control and supervision of the State Highway and Public Works Commission."

On September 3, 1943, Governor J. Melville Broughton granted Benton a full pardon. The basis of the pardon is unknown because neither Benton's pardon application nor the pardon itself exists in state archives, and there were no contemporary accounts in the local press. However, on December 4, 1947, the North Carolina Council of State acknowledged Benton's innocence in approving a payment of $715.30 to compensate him for the seven months he spent behind bars for a crime he did not commit. Benton lived in Charlotte until his death in 1984.

— Marion A. Ellis