Lena Baker was the first and only woman to be executed in Georgia’s electric chair. She was executed in 1945, after she was convicted of murdering a man who had imprisoned her. At the time of Baker’s execution, the Georgia prison system was under scrutiny for reform.
Baker was born in 1900 in the small community of Cotton Hill, about five miles southwest of Cuthbert, the seat of Randolph County. There, she and her family, which included a brother and two sisters, did farmwork for a living. Later, Baker and her parents moved into Cuthbert, where Baker cleaned houses and did laundry to support herself and her three children. Ernest B. Knight, a local gristmill owner, hired her to care for him while he recovered from a broken leg. The Albany Herald later reported that Knight, who was white, soon began to lock Baker, an African American, in the gristmill for days at a time.
Baker testified at her trial that Knight had forced her from her home on the evening of April 29, 1944, and taken her to the gristmill, where he locked her in. Her testimony in the court record indicates that the two “tussled” over a pistol, which fired, killing Knight.
The trial convened on August 14, 1944, at the courthouse in Randolph County under the jurisdiction of Judge Charles William “Two Gun” Worrill, who presided at court with two pistols on the bench. In her testimony Baker described how Knight locked her in the mill house while he went to a church singing. When he returned, he brought her something to eat but refused to let her leave, she said. When she insisted on going home, the two began to argue, and Knight brandished an iron bar that was used to lock the door. Baker said she feared for her life and attempted to push past Knight to leave. As she did, Knight was shot through the head. Baker testified that she walked immediately to the house of J. A. Cox (the county coroner and a man for whom she had done fieldwork) and told him that she had killed Ernest Knight.
The trial lasted less than a day and concluded with a guilty verdict and a death sentence for Baker. Judge Worrill sentenced her to be executed. However, Governor Ellis Arnall granted Baker a sixty-day reprieve so that the Board of Pardons and Parole could review the case. In January 1945 the board denied clemency. Baker’s execution date was rescheduled for March 5, 1945. She was taken to Reidsville State Prison on February 23, 1945.
Baker went to her death calmly and proclaiming her innocence. Her last words were,”What I done, I did in self-defense, or I would have been killed myself. Where I was I could not overcome it. God has forgiven me. I have nothing against anyone. I picked cotton for Mr. Pritchett, and he has been good to me. I am ready to go. I am one in the number. I am ready to meet my God. I have a very strong conscience.” She was pronounced dead at 11:26 a.m., after six minutes and several shocks. The Cuthbert newspaper reported Baker’s death with the headline “Baker Burns.”
Baker was buried in the cemetery next to Mt. Vernon Missionary Baptist Church in Randolph County. In 1998 a group of concerned church members marked her grave.
In 2001 Georgia discontinued the use of the electric chair as a means of capital punishment and now executes the condemned by lethal injection. The state prison’s old death chamber in Reidsville has been restored to its original condition. There, visitors may see the chair (known morbidly as “Old Sparky”), generator, switchboard, embalming room, death row cells, and recreation area known as the “last mile.” The “Under Death Sentence Register” is also on display, along with other official documents. Most prominent of all, however, is a stark black-and-white photo of Baker, taken the day she was signed into the prison. Typed underneath it are her last words.
In August 2005 Baker was pardoned posthumously by the state Board of Pardons and Paroles. The board acknowledged that the 1945 decision to deny Lena Baker clemency was “a grievous error” and that she could have been charged with the lesser crime of voluntary manslaughter, which would have prevented the sentence of capital punishment.