Georgia's Lena Baker finds mercy 60 years after her execution

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Minutes before an executioner sent Lena Baker to her death 60 years ago, she explained again why she had shot a white man, a crime that resulted in her being the only woman ever to die in Georgia's electric chair. ``What I done, I did in self-defense, or I would've been killed myself,'' Baker, a black woman and mother of three, said on March 5, 1945, in her final statement, according to records from the U.S. state. ``Where I was, I could not overcome it.''

Symbolically, Baker has finally overcome it. The State Board of Pardons and Paroles in Atlanta voted unanimously last week to pardon her. On Aug. 30, the board will hand the pardon to her great-nephew, Roosevelt Curry, who sought the declaration.

Officials across the U.S. South are facing up to racial wrongs committed generations ago, in the days when discrimination against blacks was systematic and routine. Elderly white men are being convicted for the first time for racially driven killings that were committed during the 1960s in Mississippi and Alabama.

Two men responsible for the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham that killed four black girls were convicted in separate trials in 2001 and 2002 in that Alabama city. This year, a Mississippi jury convicted Edgar Killen, 80, in the slayings of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964.

Take away race, and Baker's case was simply about a drunken argument that turned violent when a woman tried to end her relationship with an older, abusive man, who was her employer. Ernest Knight was 67 when he died. Baker was 44 when she was executed.

Yet race was central to the case. Given the time and place, the outcome would have been different if she had been white, or if the man she killed had been black, says James Ely Jr., a law professor and legal historian at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

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