By Hunter Simms, Lynchburg Museum Volunteer
Lynchburg, Virginia, 1963–In the heat of the Civil Rights movement, Thomas Wansley, a sixteen-year-old black teenager was convicted of two counts of rape and one count of robbery by a Lynchburg Corporation Court jury. Wansley was sentenced to death for each rape charge and given an additional twenty years for the robbery charge. This conviction would set off a chain of events that would last for more than ten years. Prominent civil rights lawyers and activists would become involved, the legitimacy of Lynchburg’s newspapers would be challenged, and the case would intrigue major media outlets such as the New York Times.
Throughout the south, accusations of rape frequently led to barbaric lynching rituals. Klansman or angry white “lynch mobs” would round up the accused black men and subject them to unfathomable brutalities. In fact, historians project that 25% of lynching’s took place after sexual assault allegations. If there was a moment in Lynchburg’s history that could have resulted in a lynching, the Wansley case would have been it. Thankfully, no such horror occurred.
December 1962—Thomas Carlton Wansley was corralled by police after being charged with the rape of Kyoko Fleshman—an Asian woman and the rape and robbery of Annie Carter—a middle aged white woman. The amount allegedly stolen was $1.37. After a court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. John G. Novak reported that Wansley was fit to stand trial; proceedings began on February 7, 1963.
Several procedural errors ensued. Wansley’s lawyer, Reuben Lawson, was unable to secure a court reporter for the proceedings, so he requested continuance—which was overruled. The same issue arose two days later and played out similarly. Two more weeks into the trial, new evidence concerning Wansley’s mental health was presented, the admittance of which was also overruled by the judge. The denied motions, along with sudden death of Wansley’s lawyer Reuben Lawson (replaced by L.W. Holt) would prove to work in Wansley and his legal team’s advantage over the next decade as they challenged the verdict on multiple occasions.
September 1964: Thomas Carlton Wansley v. Commonwealth of Virginia— Based on the circumstances of Wansley’s lawyer’s unexpected death, the court’s refusal to grant continuances on multiple occasions, and missing transcripts—the Supreme Court of Virginia ordered a retrial.
Lynchburg’s two main newspapers; The News and Daily Advance, headed by Carter Glass, never hid its bias as it pertained to the Wansley trial. Bias grew even stronger as the 1967 retrial approached, and it was learned that William Kunstler would be representing Wansley. Kunstler was given the McCarthy treatment as he was accused of communist involvement in any article he was featured. Prominent black nationalist, Stokely Carmichael, originator of the “black power” mantra, gave a speech at Court Street Baptist Church in defense of Kunstler in 1967. In the papers, Wansley was referred to as the “twice convicted rapist”—the case had, by that point, captured the nation’s attention.
In the 1967 retrial, Wansley v. Wilkerson, Wansley’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus was denied and he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Wilkerson, at one point admitted she wasn’t sure if the defendant was her attacker. Five years later, Wansley would be released from prison after a reversal was handed down by a Federal District Court. The presiding Judge Merhige determined that Wansley did not receive a fair trial guaranteed to him by the Constitution due to local press coverage and the courts mishandling of Wansley’s rights as a child. Wansley, after learning his fate stated, “It seems like a dream, a miracle has been performed.”