Convicting the Innocent: Errors of Criminal Justice (1932)
by Edwin M. Borchard
Case #22

Hugh C. Lee


Charles H. Fite, the postmaster in the village of Priors, Polk County, Georgia, was held up in the post office at the point of a pistol at eleven o'clock on the morning of September 15, 1923. The intruder took 165 blank United States money-order forms, a money-order dating stamp, and a metal cutter used in preparing marginal notations on issuing money orders. Van Underwood, a fourteen-year-old boy, who was in the post office during the robbery, was forced to stand by and keep quiet. The robber made a successful escape.

Mr. Fite immediately notified the Federal authorities of the occurrence, and a search for the culprit was begun. The investigation was placed in the hands of Post-Office Inspector Clyde Fleming of Atlanta. Only four days later, September 19, 1923, one of the stolen money orders was filled out and passed in Nashville, Tennessee. Fleming immediately followed the trail. In conferring upon the case with local authorities in Nashville, and in checking over former money-order forgery suspects in the Nashville district, it was recalled that in June of the previous year one Hugh C. Lee, about thirty-five years old, had been apprehended in Nashville while passing a forged money order on some blanks which had been stolen from the post office at Snowden, Virginia. Lee was also at that time wanted by the authorities of Tennessee. In October, 1922, he had been tried on the Tennessee charge of larceny, and had been convicted and sentenced to the state penitentiary for a term of from three to ten years. In December, 1922, he had made his escape from the penitentiary.

The photograph and description of Lee, with those of other suspects, were exhibited in Nashville to the person who had cashed the forged money order from the village of Priors, and were identified as those of the man who had passed it. The writing on the order did not agree in all details with the known writing of Lee, but there were some points of similarity. Consequently, Lee's photograph was sent to Priors for identification. Postmaster Fite could not identify the picture, but fourteen-year-old Van Underwood did, and several others said that they had seen a stranger around the town about September 15 who looked like the photograph of Lee. In certain middle-western towns where forged Priors money orders were being passed, Lee's picture was likewise identified. The investigators now felt convinced that they were on the trail of the right man. Lee's pictures and description were advertised, after a Grand Jury, under Foreman George S. Reese, had, on November 19, 1923, returned an indictment against him for the Priors post-office robbery.

In October, 1924, over a year later, at Emporia, Virginia, Lee was arrested on this indictment and returned to Rome, Georgia, for trial in the United States District Court, Northwestern Division, Northern District of Georgia. The indictment was brought against "Hugh C. Lee, alias R. C. Lester, alias R. C. Moore, alias R. C. Johnson." United States District Attorney Clint W. Hagar had Lee arraigned before Judge Samuel H. Sibley on November 19, 1924. Lee stated to the court that he was unable to employ counsel, and Judge Sibley assigned Mr. Barry Wright of Rome to defend him. The defendant pleaded not guilty. Postmaster Fite testified to the holdup, but could not identify Lee, with any degree of certainty, as the robber. However, the boy Van Underwood testified positively that Lee was the man; and a number of reputable citizens testified to having seen Lee around the neighborhood at about the time of the robbery. A hotel keeper and a waiter from nearby Cedartown, Georgia, testified that Lee had spent the night before the robbery at their hotel. The evidence against Lee was complete, with the exception of the handwriting on the forged money orders, which, as already observed, had only a few points of similarity to Lee's writing. The identifications were evidently considered sufficient to overcome this defect.

In his conferences with the Federal officers, Lee protested his innocence, but it was impossible to find corroboration for his alibi; and in several matters it was found that he made false statements. Lee maintained that he was in Detroit, Michigan, at the time of the robbery in September, 1923; but since more than a year had elapsed and he was without funds, he could not furnish proof of the alibi. He absolutely denied having been anywhere near Priors in September, 1923.

Lee did not take the stand in his own defense, possibly because of his known criminal record. The trial was very short, and the verdict of guilty and a sentence to a term of five years in the Atlanta Penitentiary were given on the same day as the trial, November 19, 1924 – over a year after the robbery. Lee was delivered to the warden of the penitentiary to start serving his sentence. He was then thirty-seven years old.

Lee had lived in Fitzgerald, Georgia, but he seemed to have become a "knight of the road," being separated from his wife, who lived in Roanoke, Virginia. Because of his record and his apparent lack of respectable connections, no one outside of the court officials appears to have taken much interest in his fate. Mr. Wright, the assigned defense counsel, filed a motion on November 19, 1924, for a new trial, on the ground that the verdict was contrary to the law and evidence, that a continuance should have been granted to allow the defendant to locate and subpoena witnesses, and that the defendant expected to be able to produce evidence within a short time to establish his innocence. Mr. Wright was unable to produce the further evidence hoped for, and, therefore, at his request in open court on January 3, 1925, the motion for a new trial was dismissed.


Detectives Kiger and Kiger of Nashville, Tennessee, were trailing one Will Barrett in 1923 and 1924 in connection with some forged checks. In the middle of January, 1925, Barrett carelessly returned to Nashville and passed two additional forged checks which came to the attention of the detectives. They recognized Barrett's handwriting and picked him up at once. Barrett voluntarily confessed that he was the one who had committed the robbery at Priors. Inspector Fleming was called from Atlanta, and he permitted Barrett to go into all the details of how the robbery had been perpetrated, how he was dressed at the time, where he had been, and many other details. It was found upon examination that Barrett's handwriting was identical in every detail with that on the forged money orders. Barrett's written confession was taken. It was learned that he was an escaped convict from the Alabama Penitentiary. Barrett was turned over to the Federal authorities, and was indicted and brought to trial in the United States District Court, Northwestern Division of the Northern District of Georgia, on February 9, 1925, before Judge Robert T. Ervin. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three and a half years in the Atlanta Penitentiary. After Barrett was arrested, the lad, Van Underwood, admitted his mistake in identifying Lee, but there was, in fact, a striking resemblance between Lee and Barrett. Postmaster Fite was certain that Barrett was the culprit.


The United States Government now had two men in the Atlanta Penitentiary convicted of the same crime. Everyone connected with the case was convinced that Lee was entirely innocent of the robbery at Priors. Judge Sibley, the District Attorney's Office, and the Solicitor of the Post Office Department recommended to the President that a pardon be granted.

On March 13, 1925, President Coolidge granted the pardon, with the direction that the prisoner be immediately apprehended for trial under an indictment pending against him for the robbery of the post office at Snowden, Virginia. Lee was taken to Lynchburg, where he was placed in jail to await trial. A. J. William, the postmaster at Snowden and the chief witness against the defendant, had, however, died, so that the case against Lee was nol-prossed on January 4, 1926. Lee was then turned over to the state authorities of Tennessee to serve out his old unexpired term.


This was again a case of mistaken identity, though it would seem that it might have been avoided by a more careful comparison of handwritings. The main identifying witness was a boy of fourteen, whereas the robbed postmaster was doubtful that Lee was the criminal. The facts that Lee had so bad a record and that several witnesses claimed to have seen him in and around Priors at the time of the robbery were handicaps too great to overcome. In view of the cautious attitude of the postmaster and of Lee's positive assertion that he was in Detroit in September, 1923, it might have been possible, notwithstanding the fact that the burden of proof is usually upon the one advancing an alibi, for the Federal Government to have investigated the alibi through its officials at Detroit. Again, Lee's record probably prevented such an inquiry, for there is not much sympathy for a man believed to be a congenital criminal. It is not improper to infer that such a person charged with a crime has, in practical effect, to bear the difficult burden of proving himself innocent.


1. Records of the United States District Court, Northern District of Georgia, Northwestern Division, in the case of United States v. Hugh C. Lee, alias, etc., No. 2071 – November, 1924.

2. Records of the United States District Court, Northern District of Georgia, Northwestern Division, in the case of United States v. Will Barrett, No. 7890 – February, 1925.

3. United States Attorney General's Report, 1925, p. 413.

4. Nashville Tennesseean, January 20, 1925, p. 12, cols. g and h.

5. Acknowledgment: Barry Wright, attorney at law, Rome, Ga.