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Man convicted of manslaughter pardoned after 50 years

November 28, 1997

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ More than 50 years have passed since a sailor from Oklahoma was killed in a shipboard fight following a scuffle in a small Alaska town. In all those years, James Willis always said he stabbed the man in self defense.

Willis’ quest to clear his name finally ended Wednesday, when Gov. Tony Knowles pardoned him for the stabbing that took place during what witnesses said was a racially motivated attack at the end of World War II.

``Many people have waited for this day. Nobody has waited longer than James Franklin Willis,″ Knowles said.

Willis, now 72 and living in New York City, cried tears of joy as Knowles signed the pardon at a ceremony in Juneau, nearly 3,000 miles away.

``It’s enough to break any man, but he kept fighting,″ Willis’ son James said after the pardon was signed. The elder Willis is now nearly deaf, suffering from colon cancer and is losing his eyesight. His son, James, listened to the ceremony by phone and relayed the details to his father.

``The wait was definitely worth it. Thanksgiving will be a real memorable one,″ James Willis Jr. said.

James Willis’ problems began in late October 1945 while he was serving as a Coast Guard engineer aboard the USS Sellstrom. The vessel docked at the southeast Alaska town of Wrangell for celebrations to mark the end of World War II, and Willis visited a dance hall packed with sailors on shore leave.

Several sailors took offense when Willis, who is black, danced with a woman who was either white or an American Indian and a scuffle ensued, witnesses said. Willis made it back to his ship, but the sailors came looking for him.

According to witnesses, Leonard Supernaw, a sailor from Oklahoma, threatened Willis, chased him through the Sellstrom and beat him.

``Supernaw was pounding Willis with his fists and was savagely beating him. Willis was no match for Supernaw. I feared for Willis’ life,″ said Norman Smook of Wantagh, N.Y., who witnessed the attack. Smook’s sworn statements would eventually help win Willis’ pardon.

Willis managed to break away from Supernaw long enough to retrieve a knife from his locker. When Supernaw grabbed him, Willis reached behind the man and stabbed him in the back. Supernaw died a few minutes later.

Witnesses said a near-riot broke out on the ship and Willis was badly beaten. He and the ship’s three other black crewmen were held at a jail for their safety while order was restored.

He was later indicted on a charge of second-degree murder for Supernaw’s death. While in jail awaiting trial, he developed a spinal infection stemming from the injuries he suffered during the beating. Antibiotics used to treat him damaged his hearing.

Willis says he never saw an attorney or appeared before a judge. Transcripts of court proceedings say he appeared in court several times and eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter. His attorney, Raymond Zuppa, says the records were falsified.

Willis was sentenced to five years in the McNeil Island Penitentiary in Washington. A dishonorable discharge from the Coast Guard stripped him of his benefits.

``Since his release from prison, Mr. Willis has lived a law-abiding life while bearing the stigma of a felony conviction. It’s time to relieve him of that burden,″ Knowles said Wednesday before signing the pardon.