The Press: The Case of Silas Rogers

Monday, Jan. 05, 1953

At dawn one day in 1943, two policemen chased a stolen car through Petersburg, Va. and forced it into a ditch. In the wreck they found two soldiers, both AWOL. One cop stayed behind guarding them; the other, R. B. Hatchell, set off in pursuit of the driver, who had run away. Half an hour later two shots rang out; Hatchell's body was found nearby.

For two hours police combed the area, finally picked up a Negro hitchhiker named Silas Rogers, and got him to confess that he had stolen the car in Raleigh, N.C., shot the cop. The court would not allow Rogers' confession to be used at his trial; there was clear evidence he had confessed only after a brutal third degree. But when the two soldiers identified Rogers as the Negro who had picked them up in the stolen car, he was convicted, sentenced to death.

Court of Last Resort

To the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the evidence seemed weak.

It found a witness who corroborated Rogers' story that he had arrived in Petersburg by train, thus could not have stolen the car in North Carolina. At that evidence, Rogers' sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Then a fellow convict told Rogers of Argosy magazine's "Court of Last Resort," an investigative agency started by Argosy Publisher Henry Steeger and Whodunit Writer Erie Stanley (Perry Mason) Gardner (TIME, May 9, 1949). Rogers wrote to Argosy and Argosy went to work on the case.

Editorial Writer Jack Kilpatrick of the Richmond (Va.) News Leader also began an investigation. Kilpatrick, a hard-digging reporter (who has since succeeded Historian Douglas Southall Freeman as editor of the News Leader — TIME, July 16, 1951), first got interested in the case as a reporter when Rogers made an unsuccessful appeal to a higher court. Con vinced of his innocence, Kilpatrick ran a two-column editorial called "The Curious Case of Silas Rogers." Wrote he: "The conviction grows, and grows [that] Silas Rogers is imprisoned for life — for a crime he never committed." "Kilpo" Kilpatrick quizzed Rogers and prison authorities, telephoned and wrote newspapers in three states for help. Working with Argosy, he assembled a mass of evidence and affidavits to show that the two soldiers had lied on the witness stand.

The soldiers testified to sharing cigarettes with Rogers in the stolen car; Kilpatrick proved that Rogers did not smoke. An other piece of key evidence was that Rogers drove the stolen car; Kilpatrick proved that Rogers had never learned to drive.

As new evidence poured in. Newsman Kilpatrick peppered Virginia's Governor John S. Battle with some 50 letters — so many that, when he had occasion to write the governor on other matters, he wo'tild preface his letters with the phrase, "Not about Silas Rogers." Kilpatrick wrote a series of cold, factual editorials on the case, deliberately avoided sensationalism for fear that Red-front groups would leap into the fray for propaganda purposes.

End of the Trail

By last month, the only damaging bit of testimony left was that a coat found in the stolen car belonged to Silas Rogers. When an Argosy legman found and questioned the man who had given the testimony, the witness changed his story: on second thought, said he, Rogers' coat was brown, whereas the one found in the car was blue. Last week, just two days before Christmas, Governor Battle signed a pardon, and Silas Rogers, after nine years behind bars, stepped from the Virginia State Penitentiary a free man. Wrote Editor Kilpatrick: "It is, for this newspaper, the end of a long trail—a trail at once heart-warming and heart-breaking." Silas Rogers, standing in a blue suit which he had made himself in the prison tailor shop for the occasion, looked up at a dull winter sky and said: "I've never seen it so beautiful."