A Close Shave with Death:
The Framing of Henry Drake


Content note: This essay contains descriptions of lynchings and murder.

"When you're on death row, you're there to be killed."
"That's it, yessir."
"And do you think about that every day?"
"Every day…all day long. When that door open, that's it. You're gon' die."

Henry Arthur Drake was born March 15, 1945 in Colbert, Georgia. He loved working on cars, and he was damn good at it. "He could make a car run forever," according to a cousin—but Henry Drake didn't drive. At least, not after he was released from Georgia's Death Row in 1987, after serving almost 12 years for the murder of local barber C.E. Eberhart. In fact, after his release, Henry never drove again. He rarely left his tiny, single-wide trailer in Colbert, but when he did, he got rides from his sister.

He died in 2006, having spent the last 19 years of his life as a town pariah: framed for a murder he didn't commit, his story an unprecedented case for Georgia law books. And yet, largely because he was poor and a troublemaker, he was still guilty in the eyes of many.

Henry hadn't done much to curb his reputation of being "white trash." In his younger years, he'd raised his share of hell in the small town, just 12 miles northeast of Athens. Henry stole cars, took them for joyrides, and then abandoned them. He was arrested half a dozen times for burglary and petty theft. Henry was from a loving family, he was relatively harmless, but just couldn't seem to keep himself out of trouble. "That boy just ain't right," was a common refrain.

As a child, Henry was shy. A childhood yearbook photo shows a towheaded youngster with a smile that's both angelic and a little mischievous, marked by deep cheek dimples. He was the baby of the family and a mama's boy—doted on and spoiled by the older ones. As he got older, though, the naïve and genial nature that had made him a charming youngster became his downfall. Not great at reading social cues, Henry attracted friends who didn't have his best interests at heart. Combined with Henry's fun-loving (and reckless) nature, this resulted in some poor decisions. Henry was always running after a crowd that was older, wiser, apt to get Henry into trouble and leave him holding the bag. He was, as the old timers said, "rurnt" and a regular in the local jail by the time he was 15 years old.

Henry Drake was convicted for a 1975 murder he didn't commit—twice. Even after another man confessed to the crime, he still spent 12 years on Death Row seeking exoneration and battling the classism and legal misconduct of Georgia's judicial system.

Then, by the mid-1970s, a short-lived marriage was over, and Henry's ex-wife had taken the children. By all accounts, he had not treated her well. Henry, unable to afford to live alone on the wages of odd jobs he couldn't keep, took up residence with his new paramour Mary Carruth, a widow—and a Black woman—20 years his senior. Also renting a room from Mary was William "Pops" Campbell, an older man from Virginia whose years of petty crimes had driven him to Georgia in search of a fresh start. In fact, "Pops" and Henry first met on a mutual stint in the county jail. The friendship between this odd trio made folks in Colbert nervous; it was one thing for Henry to cohabitate with an out-of-town convict, but to also be "living in sin" with a Black woman? Unforgivable. 

Colbert, like so many Southern towns of the era, had a fraught and complicated history with racism. In 1936, Colbert native Lent Shaw, a married father of 11, was kidnapped, tortured, and lynched by a white mob after an accusation of harassing a white woman. After his killing, the mob proudly posed for pictures with his corpse. Shaw was buried in a shallow, unmarked grave and his widow and children were driven out of Georgia.

Lieutenant Colonel Lemuel Penn.
Lieutenant Colonel Lemuel Penn

Twenty-eight years later, a group of Ku Klux Klan members dining in nearby Athens spotted Lieutenant Colonel Lemuel Penn, a Black Army Reserve soldier, driving through town on his way home from Savannah to Washington, D.C. They followed his car into Madison County and shot him on the Broad River Bridge between Colbert and the town of Bowman. The lynching of Lemuel Penn happened only nine days after the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  

While many Colbert residents strongly condemned these murders (with many speaking out publicly against the "crooked trial" that resulted in Penn's killers receiving almost no consequences), there were still plenty of antiblack attitudes writhing below the surface. There were plenty of folks in town that didn't take kindly to Henry stepping out with a Black woman. Henry, who was no stranger to being an outsider, paid it no attention. He was, by all accounts, oblivious.

We'll likely never know what kind of discrimination Mary Carruth received for the relationship, but we can imagine, based on so many other similar stories, what she might have endured. Despite the prejudice they faced, Henry and Mary got along well, and were happy living together. Henry's relationship with Pops Campbell, however, was another story.

On the evening of December 5, 1975, Henry, Mary, and Pops decided to ride into town after doing some drinking. It was a cold night, so the trio went to the laundromat first and kept warm by the dryers. Then, they walked near the railroad tracks and drank some more before paying a visit to the barbershop just around the corner.

C.E. Eberhart's barbershop in Colbert, Georgia.

Henry Drake was convicted for a 1975 murder he didn't commit—twice. Even after another man confessed to the crime, he still spent 12 years on Death Row seeking exoneration and battling the classism and legal misconduct of Georgia's judicial system.

Seventy-four-year-old C.E. Eberhart's barbershop was nestled in a tiny building not much bigger than a wellhouse, one that still stands near the center of Colbert today. By all accounts, Eberhart was a kindly man who gave a great haircut for a fair price. One of many descendants of the illustrious Eberhart family, which was among the first ones to settle into Madison County, Eberhart commanded that unique brand of small-town affection reserved for those "from a good family."

On that cold December night, Eberhart was just getting ready to close up shop, when Henry, Mary, and Pops came through the door. Perhaps he was feeling the Christmas spirit, because Eberhart obliged when Pops asked him for a quick haircut.

Stories diverge as to what happened next, but one thing was clear: later that night, the elderly barber was found comatose, propped against the wall of his barbershop in a pool of his own blood. The blood was smeared all over the walls, indicating that a hell of a struggle must have taken place. The elderly barber had been stabbed once in the chest and beaten in the head with a clawhammer hard enough to crush his skull in several places. He had been robbed of $300 and his Timex watch. Eberhart, who despite his age, had been a large and healthy man, doggedly clung to life in a coma for three and a half months, before finally succumbing to his injuries.

C.E. Eberhart's grave at Colbert City Cemetery. Photo by Christine Crumley Brown.

Henry Drake was convicted for a 1975 murder he didn't commit—twice. Even after another man confessed to the crime, he still spent 12 years on Death Row seeking exoneration and battling the classism and legal misconduct of Georgia's judicial system.
C.E. Eberhart's grave at Colbert City Cemetery. Photo by Christine Crumley Brown.

Police wasted no time in apprehending Henry, Mary, and Pops, as witnesses saw them hanging out at the barbershop, and Henry's distinct pocket knife was found on the bloodied floor. The clawhammer, or the murder weapon, was found in a truck outside. For all intents and purposes, it was a slam dunk case—Henry was the guy. There was only one thing that nagged at investigators: Henry had somewhat of an alibi that Mary corroborated. Meanwhile, William "Pops" Campbell had fled town, leaving behind one key piece of evidence in his chest of drawers: a bloody Timex watch, which Eberhart's daughter confirmed was his.

Shortly after, Pops was apprehended in Virginia, bearing a nasty cut on his forehead. He was extradited back to Georgia, where both he and Henry were detained for questioning. The two men immediately implicated each other. Pops swore that Henry had abruptly decided to assault the barber while he was receiving a haircut, then fled the scene in a panic. Henry and Mary insisted that they'd merely dropped Pops off for his haircut, then left and went to Henry's mother's house for dinner, a fact that Henry's brother-in-law confirmed. According to the pair, when they'd seen Pops later, he was bedraggled and wheezing and begged them to help him get out of town. "I might have killed a man," he'd allegedly confessed to Mary Carruth.


Local police didn't know what to make of the situation. Yes, the evidence clearly pointed to Pops Campbell, but the men were roommates, and Henry's alibi wasn't airtight. Besides, Pops was old and in very bad health. Did he even have the strength to kill a man? It was a case of either/or, and investigators were stumped. Which man had done it? Had they done it together?

In the end, both Henry Drake and William "Pops" Campbell were tried for the murder in Georgia's Superior Court. Pops' trial came first. On the stand, he blamed Henry for the murder, saying he acted alone by first attacking the barber, then hitting Pops over the head with his hammer when he tried to stop him, resulting in his forehead injury. The jury didn't believe Pops' story. He was found guilty of murder and sent to prison.

At Henry's trial months later, a shackled Pops was brought in as a witness. There, he told a similar story, but with some glaring deviations from his original account. Despite the issues with his story, and the sworn testimony of both Mary Carruth and Henry's brother-in-law corroborating Henry's alibi, the jury felt Henry deserved punishment. Local influence and politics played a large part in the trial. One of the jurors was revealed to be a relative of the victim, and yet, was not dismissed. Sheriff Jack Fortson was overheard calling Henry "white trash." Prosecutor Bryant Huff argued that Pops couldn't have physically fought Eberhart due to his severe health issues. 

The prosecutor then confounded the jury by reading from two Georgia Supreme Court opinions on murder cases that had little relevance to Henry's. One quote cautioned that failure to convict would have the jury struggling to remove the stains of guilt from themselves. Whether by a slip of the tongue or on purpose, Huff referred to Henry Drake by the name of a recently executed murderer, when he remarked, "Gary Gilmore, if your Honor pleases, will never kill anyone else again." In his closing arguments, Huff said:

"We have had too much of this mercy. It is not true mercy. It only looks to the criminal, but we must insist upon mercy to society… for criminals to go unpunished is a disgrace to our civilization, and we have reaped the fruits of it in the frequency in which the bloody deed occurs."

Huff's unorthodox tactics worked. On September 1, 1977, the jury found Henry guilty of murder and sentenced him to prison.

Now both Henry Drake and Pops Campbell were in jail for the same crime. And both men were sentenced to die for that crime.

Both Henry's lawyer, August "Bud" Siemon, and Pops' attorney, Pat Beall, set themselves to filing appeals. Henry's legal team argued that Henry had not been granted a fair trial, due to extreme prejudice and the improper remarks made by the prosecution's closing arguments.

Beall soon found himself with quite the headache: no sooner than the bars shut behind Henry, Pops had a swift and sudden change of heart. The older man, in failing health due to his emphysema, was now wrestling with his conscience. He wanted to confess, he said. He'd made it all up. Henry hadn't been the sole murderer of Eberhart, or even an accomplice. In fact, he hadn't even been on the scene when it happened. Henry Drake was telling the truth. It was himself, he told Beall, who had murdered C.E. Eberhart. And he wanted to sign a confession.

"I always thought I'd be electrocuted. I worried they'd mix up the papers, and poof, you're gone."

What happened next was shocking. Beall did not immediately assist his client in signing a confession. Instead, Beall admonished Pops for confessing and advised him to never utter the words again. Even more shocking, over the next several years, as Henry's attorney's diligently filed appeal after appeal, each one denied, attorney Pat Beall kept telling his client to keep his mouth shut.

Beall knew this was an ethical dilemma, but ultimately his loyalty was to Pops, his client, and his motivations were to keep him out of the electric chair—even if it meant sending an innocent man in his place. Beall diligently filed his own appeals as the years went on, knowing all the while that William "Pops" Campbell had framed Henry Drake.

But Pops would not be deterred. With the zeal of a man close to death, he was determined to right his wrong. He spoke to anyone who would listen about Henry's innocence. Despite his attorney's demurring, he asked again and again to sign a confession. Eventually, when he met local pastor Reverend Murphy Davis, who ran a death row lay ministry, he confessed. The young woman urged him to do the right thing and sign a confession. Campbell readily agreed, but still, Beall refused to file the paperwork, arguing that a confession would not only put Pops' appeals in jeopardy, but would open him up to a perjury charge. He suggested a compromise: an affidavit that would be filed once Pops, whose health was ever-worsening, died. Pops uneasily agreed, but as the months went on, his guilty conscience weighed on him more and more. Henry continued to file several appeals, but still, each one was denied. He would be put to death if Pops didn't do something. And before Pops died, he needed to see Henry freed.  

Finally, Pops could no longer grapple with his guilt: he signed an affidavit of confession and, bypassing his attorney, had his religious counselors deliver it directly to Henry's legal team. The team of lawyers, shocked by the written confession, immediately filed another appeal.

Henry Drake was convicted for a 1975 murder he didn't commit—twice. Even after another man confessed to the crime, he still spent 12 years on Death Row seeking exoneration and battling the classism and legal misconduct of Georgia's judicial system.

William "Pops" Campbell died less than two years after signing his confession. He was unable to see his friend freed, but he did, at least, die unburdened from some of his guilt. Henry's long-suffering mother, in an awe-inspiring act of grace and forgiveness, attended the funeral.

But if Henry's legal team thought Pops' confession was grounds for immediate parole, they were sadly mistaken. The State of Georgia was surprisingly unphased by Pops' confession, citing recent laws which stated late-hour confessions were not grounds for a new trial. Pops had only confessed because he was dying, they argued, so his statement could not be taken as credible. Four more years passed, and Henry remained on Death Row. He said later, "I always thought I'd be electrocuted. I worried they'd mix up the papers, and poof, you're gone."

As the years passed, many people—from pastors to attorneys, and prosecutors to prison wardens—were talking among themselves about Henry's case. Pops' late-hour confession combined with the state's apathetic denials of Henry's various appeals bothered more than one person. One man in particular, former police officer turned Pardons & Parole Board chairman James Morris, decided to do something about it.

Morris had been appointed to the board by President Jimmy Carter only a few years earlier, and was especially invested in Henry's case. Morris was born and raised in Madison County, same as Henry, and knew all too well the prejudices that thrived there. And Henry's case had a great deal of prejudice—classism, ableism, and racism, all tied up with a neat little bow.

Morris knew that men like Henry were of little value to those whose lives existed firmly inside the margins. Henry might not have killed C.E. Eberhart, a man from a "good family," but in the eyes of his peers, he was guilty all the same. This was evident in the many appeals and the two trials, none of which had given Henry his freedom, despite a signed confession from the actual killer. The refusal of the State to free Henry was simply an extension of the same prejudice Henry had experienced much of his life. It said: his life is worth nothing.

The Georgia Board of Pardons & Paroles, led by Morris, took action. In 1983, they appealed to the Georgia State Legislature to change the state constitution, granting the Pardons board the power to issue stays and clemency. This was a privilege previously only afforded to the governor, and it was a big ask. To the Board's surprise, the Georgia legislature acquiesced and made the change. Finally, after another three years and some change and two more trials in 1985 and 1987—one a hung jury 10-2 in favor of acquittal; the other overturning the death sentence, but sentencing Henry to life in prison—on December 23, 1987, Henry Drake was paroled and set free, with a promise of exoneration at a later date.

Henry Drake was convicted for a 1975 murder he didn't commit—twice. Even after another man confessed to the crime, he still spent 12 years on Death Row seeking exoneration and battling the classism and legal misconduct of Georgia's judicial system.
Page 1 of The Atlanta Constitution, December 24, 1987.

Upon Henry's release, The Madison County Journal was besieged by angry letters to the editor, from locals who were incensed by his parole. The press had done a good job of covering Henry's case over the years and people knew that Pops was the man who killed C.E. Eberhart. But it didn't matter. As far as they were concerned, the book on Henry Drake had already been written and closed. There was no redeeming him. 

Henry took residence in a small, single-wide trailer on an isolated country road and laid low. He knew he was a pariah, that people were not on his side. According to one relative, Henry became a loner and a recluse who "didn't like to come around," unless it was to care for his now-ailing mother, or run the occasional errand with his sister, one of the few people in his life who hadn't abandoned him. He was lonely, and alone, haunted by memories of Death Row.

Henry was freed in 1987 and died in 2006. Not much is known about his life in the 19 years between. What did he do? Where did he work? Did he find love again? What was life like for Mary Carruth in Henry's absence? Was Henry able to achieve peace with what had happened to him? Most of these questions remain unanswered, but Henry did grant an interview to the PBS show "Religion & Ethics Weekly," where he chatted with a journalist in front of a beat-up, pale blue truck—presumably his latest tinker vehicle.

There comes a time when rigid upholding of the law doesn't serve a greater good at all, but rather one's own hubris.

He was asked point blank if he hated anyone, specifically William "Pops" Campbell, for the lies and obstruction that kept him on Death Row for over 10 years. Henry didn't have to think; his answer tumbled out quickly, before the interviewer had even finished asking. "No, no," he said vehemently, drawing out each vowel slowly in a low drawl. He shook his head passionately. "No, I don't hate nobody." He took a drag on a hand-rolled cigarette. The interviewer pressed: "What about the attorney?" Henry's expression turned. "Mr. Beall? He was wrong. He was a wrong man."

Most people, from lawmakers to journalists, who have written about the Henry Drake case agree with Henry: Pat Beall's actions were wrong. But Pops Campbell's former attorney has always publicly maintained that he was only acting in the best interests of his client. That meant adhering to confidentiality agreements and doing everything to keep his client out of the electric chair. What that meant for Henry Drake, well, that was his attorney's problem. We know that Beall reached out to colleagues once or twice to strengthen his resolve, so he clearly did grapple with his decision. Yet, ultimately, he sat with the knowledge of Henry's innocence for years, knowing that he could die at any time. 

Death penalty opponents gather on the steps of the State Capitol in Atlanta, Ga., Monday, March 2, 2015 to protest the death penalty and the planned execution of Kelly Gissendaner. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ben Gray)

On the execution of my friend, Kelly Gissendaner

Kelly Gissendaner spent 17 years on death row before being executed by the state of Georgia in 2015. She spent those years transforming her life through education, faith, and community. A close friend she made in prison shares the story of her life and death.

Beall clearly felt he was upholding the ethics of his profession. His loyalties lay with the rule of law. Must what is legal always overrule what is right? Certainly, the question mattered little to Henry, who feared it was his turn to die every time the door to his cell was opened. Nor did it matter to Pops, who begged for years to recant his lie. There comes a time when rigid upholding of the law doesn't serve a greater good at all, but rather one's own hubris. It certainly seems that way in the case of Pat Beall, who doubled down on his own superior sense of right and wrong, his own dogged determination to serve his client, blinding him to the fact that he was only causing him more grief. Pops Campbell wanted to confess. For his attorney to assume he knew better is its own kind of prejudice.

As for Henry Drake: when he died, there was little fanfare save for a small funeral and obituary in the local paper. Henry was buried in a small family plot beside his brother, overlooking a sunny green pasture a short walk from the family homestead.

One of the last times I visited, I heard the unmistakable song of a bobwhite quail, named after its distinctive call. An endangered species due to urban development and deforestation, bobwhites are extremely reclusive. Preferring to stay hidden, they only mix with their family group, the ones they trust the most. For these reasons, seeing or hearing a bobwhite is now a rare thing, a special thing. I think that Henry Drake, a man trapped in a cell for 12 years, who never showed his face much again except to those he loved, might feel a natural affinity with these reclusive birds. After all, life had taught him to hold tight to those you love and trust, and be wary of everyone else, lest they do you harm.

Scalawag's Week of Writing: Condemned exclusively features the writing and insights of incarcerated writers facing judicial homicide on Death Row.

Lillah Lawson is the author of novels Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree (2019), nominated for Georgia Author of the Year (2020); So Long, Bobby (February 2023); The Dead Rockstar Trilogy (’20-’24), and Tomorrow & Tomorrow with Lauren Emily Whalen (October 2023). She was a recipient of the UGA Willson Center/Flagpole Magazine’s Micro-Fellowship for her short story Shoofly (2020). Her horror short The Lady and the Tall Man was published in the Shiver Anthology, edited by Nico Bell in 2021. Her story Burn the Witch appeared in the Stoker-nominated anthology Chromophobia, edited by Sara Tantlinger in 2022. Another story, Oblong Objects in the Mirror appeared in the Aseptic and Faintly Sadistic Anthology by Cosmic Horror Monthly in May 2023. Lillah also writes a monthly column for her local newspaper. In addition to writing, Lillah is a genealogist pursuing her BA in History and English Literature, and proudly serves as secretary on her local library’s Board of Trustees. An avid music lover, she’s happiest at metal shows. She lives just outside of Athens, Georgia.