Monday, June 08, 2009

A Sad, But Fascinating, Tale

This month's issue of the ABA Journal has a fascinating article about a unique moment of Supreme Court practice, arising from a shameful era in the nation's history.

Nevada Taylor, a 21 year old white woman, was raped one January night on her way home from work in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1906. Although Taylor said she didn't see her attacker, she nonetheless described him to the sheriff as a "Negro brute." The story raced around town, the citizenry stoked to near frenzy in the next couple of days as no arrest was made. After a reward was offered, a local man identified Ed Johnson, a 19 year old black man, as being in the area of the attack.

Johnson was quickly arrested, which did not quell the mob, which tried (twice) to bust into the local jail and lynch him. Shortly thereafter, he was tried and convicted of the offense and sentenced to death. His attorneys convinced him not to appeal, basically on the theory that if he won, he'd be lunched anyway.

About a month before the sentence was to be carried out, a pair of black lawyers in Chattanooga - Noah W. Parden and Styles L. Hutchins - took Johnson's case. The trial judge was not impressed with their efforts to reverse Johnson's conviction:

But McReynolds quickly rejected the plea, stating that the defense attorneys had missed the deadline under local rules requiring that motions for new trial be filed within 72 hours of a verdict.

Besides, the judge scolded them, “What can two Negro lawyers do that the defendant’s previous three attorneys were unable to achieve? Do you know the law better than this court or the lawyers who represented the defendant? Do you think a Negro lawyer could possibly be smarter or know the law better than a white lawyer?”
Shut down in state court, Parden and Hutchins sought review in the federal courts, an odd place at the time. It took a trip to the Supreme Court, where Justice Harlan entered a stay of execution so the Court could review the case. Amazingly, that order didn't do much:
News of Justice Harlan’s action spread throughout Chattanooga. Dozens of men, armed with guns, stormed the county jail holding Johnson. Leaders of the mob were surprised to find no resistance to their raid. Sheriff Shipp, claiming that talk of a lynching was nonsense, had given all of his depu­ties the night off—all except 72-year-old jailer Jeremiah Gibson. And all the other inmates had been moved off the floor where Johnson’s cell was located.

The siege on the jail began about 8 p.m., with mob leaders using sledgehammers to pound away at the big iron lock that protected Johnson in his cell. Sheriff Shipp actually showed up at the jail amid the riot, but he was told to go into the bathroom and wait. He complied.

It took three hours for the iron lock on Johnson’s cell to fi­nally give way. The leaders of the mob grabbed him and took him to the county bridge that spanned the Tennessee River. They put a noose around John­son’s neck and told him that there was nothing he could do or say to save his life, so he might as well confess.

But when he spoke, according to newspaper reports, Johnson said, 'I am ready to die. But I never done it. I am going to tell the truth. I am not guilty. I am not guilty. I have said all the time that I did not do it and it is true. I was not there.'

Then Johnson uttered his last words: 'God bless you all. I am innocent.'

The statement drove the crowd into a frenzy, and Johnson was lifted into the air by his neck. His body swung for a couple minutes. But he apparently wasn’t dying fast enough, so some in the mob opened fire. One report stated that he was shot more than 50 times. Finally, a bullet pierced the rope and Johnson’s body fell to the wooden planks of the bridge.

'He’s not dead yet!' yelled someone in the crowd.

A man later identified as a deputy sheriff shot John­son five more times at point-blank range. He then pinned a note onto Johnson’s chest that read, 'To Justice Harlan. Come get your n----r now.'
Perhaps more amazing is that was not the end of the story. Teddy Roosevelt's attorney general, after an investigation by the Secret Service, charged Shipp and several others with contempt of the Supreme Court. What ensued, for the only time in the Court's history, was an actual trial, rather than appeal of a case.

For much more detail - including what happened to Shipp and his codefendants at trial and after, not to mention Parden and Hutchins, read the article. It's fascinating, but in a very depressing sort of way.

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