Willie Jones

As he walked home from the late shift at Peters Packing Co., a McKeesport meat packing plant, on May 31, 1940, 60-year old plant foreman Frank Akerson was robbed by Willie Jones. Akerson reportedly yelled when approached by Jones, who then shot him. Akerson died the next morning.

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Locust St, with School Alley in rear

Akerson provided a description of his assailant before he died. Jones, who was born in Georgia and lived in McKeesport, was also identified by Edna Phillips, who saw him from inside her home as he fled the scene.

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Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, June 1, 1940

After arresting Jones on June 3 on an unrelated disorderly conduct charge, police discovered stolen items in his possession. After ten days of aggressive questioning, Jones ultimately confessed to killing Akerson. He later claimed that he was beaten into confessing and denied any involvement in Akerson’s killing.

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Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, June 16, 1940

On the strength of eyewitness testimony, his own confession, and the gun used in the murder, Jones was convicted of first-degree murder on October 24, 1940, and sentenced to death. Despite evidence of a racially biased investigation and trial before an all-white jury, proceedings Jones characterized as “poor man’s justice,” his motion for a new trial was rejected and conviction was affirmed on appeal (Commonwealth v. Jones, 341 Pa. 541, 1941).

With the support of the American League to Abolish Capital Punishment and other civic and religious groups and the close attention of the Pittsburgh Courier, the execution of Willie Jones was stayed multiple times while a pardon could be considered. After the Pardon Board found Jones’s case unpersuasive, a mental competency exam was ordered.

After he was found to be competent, Willie Jones was executed on November 24, 1941.

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Pittsburgh Press, November 24, 1941

Despite his execution, Jones’s case marked the beginning of a new era in the death penalty in which cases involving Black defendants would be vigorously contested in court and would receive the attention of national civil rights and abolitionist organizations.

 

 

Author: Bill Lofquist

I am a sociologist and death penalty scholar at the State University of New York at Geneseo. I am also a Pittsburgh native. My present research focuses on the history of the death penalty in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), Pa. This website is dedicated to collecting, analyzing, and sharing information about all Allegheny County cases in which a death sentence was imposed. Please share any questions or comments, errors or omissions, or other matters of interest related to these cases or to the broader history of the death penalty in Allegheny County.

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