- Historic Sites
A Black Cadet At West Point
One morning Cadet Johnson Whittaker was found battered and bleeding, trussed to his barracks bed. Who had done it, and why?
August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
A point concerning the handwriting experts, which played only a slight role in the trial, was the government’s use of a number of Whittaker’s letters only as specimens for analysis and not as actual evidence. Chamberlain objected vehemently that it was not legally proper to introduce these letters, but the board, after discussion, overruled him. Later this seemingly insignificant point was to take on overwhelming proportions.
On June 1, 1881, after nearly four months of testimony, Chamberlain began his closing statement. He brieflyreviewed the charges and specifications and then reminded the court gently but firmly that it was not Whittaker’s task to prove his innocence. It was up to the government to prove him guilty. Suspicion was not enough; proof of guilt had to be conclusive. Whittaker had no motive for committing the outrage: his grades were adequate, and the argument that he mutilated himself to miss an examination two months later made no sense.
Chamberlain then launched into an attack on Whittaker’s social ostracism. He denied any desire to try West Point in this court, but he did question the fairness of its authorities. It seemed ludicrous to watch three hundred to four hundred people completely ostracize a young man of blameless record and then argue that the former should be taken at their word, while the latter be assumed guilty. Who was more worthy of belief—the blameless young man or the cadets doing “daily and hourly outrage against his sacred right?”
Chamberlain then showed that the two surgeons, Alexander and Lippencott, had contradicted each other on such elementary matters as the location of wounds. Dr. Alexander, he said, was particularly at fault for making such positive statements that Whittaker was feigning, despite his failure to give the cadet a thorough physical examination at the time of the incident.
Chamberlain also scoffed at the notion that anyone could tie himself up as tightly as Whittaker was tied when he was found. In fact, he argued, the prosecution’s entire hypothesis about the way Whittaker had supposedly mutilated himself was completely untenable. To cite but one example, nowhere in Whittaker’s room was there found a pair of scissors with blades long enough to cut Whittaker’s hair the way it had been cut. Whittaker’s own scissors were too small.
As for the handwriting analysis, the crux of the government case, Chamberlain implied that the government experts were incompetent. More reputable experts, retained by the defense, had shown that the edge of the warning note did not match that of Whittaker’s letter, as contended; there was no underwriting; and the paper of the note was not the same paper as that of the letter.
Chamberlain continued in this vein for over three hundred pages of summation, minutely examining the various details in the case and answering the government’s accusations. He argued that the government had not been able to prove that Whittaker had written the note of warning or that he had feigned anything. The government had had superior resources and power in this case, but he felt confident that truth would win out. “I reverently believe,” he concluded, “in a protecting Providence without whose notice not a sparrow falls.”
A burst of applause swept through the courtroom as Chamberlain sat down. It was now the prosecution’s turn, but Major Gardiner asked for a delay over the weekend because of voice trouble and a recent burn to his hand that had prevented him from taking notes on Chamberlain’s summation. The court agreed.
The following Monday, June 6, 1881, at 11 A.M. , Gardiner gave his summation. He began by congratulating Chamberlain on his performance. It showed clearly, he said, that Whittaker had had excellent representation in this case. As for the prosecution, the men of the court knew him well—some from past association—and they knew that he would speak up if he did not think there was enough evidence in this case. There was no doubt in his mind, he said, that Whittaker was guilty. He particularly wanted it made clear, too, that he disagreed with Chamberlain’s contention about a key legal principle: “It is not that there shall be no possibility of a doubt, but that there shall be no reasonable doubt .”
Gardiner then carefully traced the entire incident from the discovery of Whittaker that April morning, through the examination by Dr. Alexander and the court of inquiry. The gist of his argument was that Whittaker was the only person with a motive, he could have committed the act himself, he wrote the note of warning, and he was therefore guilty.
Gardiner’s argument regarding Whittaker’s motive was particularly interesting because it discussed the aspect of the case that had received the most national attention, the social ostracism. Gardiner said: He undoubtedly was left alone by many cadets; but whether this occurred because he made himself unpopular by his selfconceit and assumptions or because of certain disagreeable personal peculiarities or because of that want of frankness in his character and appearance which has been manifested here on the witness stand, or whether it was on account of his colored skin merely, or all combined, is something difficult to determine…